The Key to Bach

Back in the distant past, when every family of means owned a piano, any child who learned to play eventually tackled Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The notes of these 48 preludes and fugues are readily available to most young fingers – I’ve just heard a new recording of Book 2 played by a remarkable 10-year-old, Albert Wong (Ivory Classics 71007) – and whoever gets this music into his ears early in life never forgets it. I imagine that accounts for the audible sigh of happy recognition that escaped from the adult sitting behind me at Carnegie Hall not long ago, when András Schiff launched his two-concert traversal of The Well-Tempered Clavier with the rippling arpeggios of the C-major Prelude.

Of course, the infinitely varied sound world of this music can only become that much more intriguing when addressed by a real virtuoso who has lived with the score for many years. And like virtually all of Bach’s works, it responds to any number of different types of keyboard instruments and interpretive approaches. The modern grand piano is Schiff’s instrument of choice, and this composer has long been among his specialties. Schiff first played a comparable Bach marathon here to celebrate the great man’s tercentenary in 1985. He offered the complete Klavierübung back then – a towering compilation of masterpieces that includes the six partitas, French Suites, Italian Concerto, and Goldberg Variations. At the time, his playing impressed me with its discipline, control, intelligence, and gorgeous sound, all directly in the service of the music. Fifteen years later, the same qualities prevail, but his Bach is now even more absorbing, in performances that draw on the piano’s most relevant coloristic, rhythmic, and articulative resources.

Schiff’s eloquent approach to the composer quite simply demolishes whatever doubts purists may still harbor about the suitability of a piano for this music. Perhaps Bach never expected, or even wanted, fugal entries, inner voices, and motific relationships defined and shaped quite so specifically, even when done with the exquisite lapidary precision that Schiff lavishes on the notes. For me, that only increases the musical richness of these 48 miracles while giving the emotional world each inhabits an even greater immediacy. And what an amazing diversity Schiff discovers here. He not only establishes the perfect equilibrium that makes these worlds turn, but he also characterizes them with interpretive choices that can’t help but illuminate and pleasantly surprise even the connoisseur who thought he knew their every secret. Those who can do so will still find playing The Well-Tempered Clavier for themselves the most rewarding way to mine its treasure. All others will find Schiff an inspired guide, one who takes his listeners straight to the source.

Few record companies can afford to be sentimental in these days of downsizing and, in some cases, total abandonment of classical music. For a label to release a set of discs honoring a legendary leader from its recent past – and at that, one whose adventurous artistic policies and uncompromising principles eventually led to her dismissal by profit-hungry executives – is even more improbable. But then Nonesuch records has always been different, as its two-disc portrait of Teresa Sterne (79619-2) makes very clear. Nonesuch was a pioneer in new budget-priced classical lines when Tracey (as everyone called her) took charge of the label in 1965, but she soon was putting out exciting material bigger companies never dared touch: important new music by major composers, turn-of-the-century American song, Scott Joplin discs that ignited a nationwide craze for ragtime, world music from all parts of the globe, controversial editions of Baroque classics – anything that met Sterne’s rigorous standards of quality, and that meant design, packaging, and sound as well.

She also nurtured many superb musicians whose careers began to flourish thanks in part to her enthusiastic support, artists such as pianists Paul Jacobs and Gilbert Kalish, mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, and the husband-and-wife team of composer-pianist William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. It all lasted until 1979, when the corporate ax fell, but for nearly fifteen years Nonesuch was a byword for musical excellence.

One disc of 21 excerpts recorded in those days reminds us of just what a special label Nonesuch was. What will come as a surprise to most is the music on the other record, which preserves piano performances by Sterne herself. Few remembered or even knew about her short-lived career as a teenage recitalist and soloist with the NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic, but these recordings of music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff feature an important talent that would certainly have matured into a major artist. Most impressive is Mozart’s D minor Concerto, one of the composer’s darkest, most troubled scores and given an amazingly focused and eloquent interpretation by Sterne – at age 14. One of her last public performances, in 1951, was a sonata dedicated to her by David Broekman, and this probing, brilliantly articulated rendition is even more indicative of what a remarkable musician she had already become.

All that was far in the past when Sterne arrived at Nonesuch, where she was more or less allowed to do as she pleased. The label was for all practical purposes a one-woman operation, and we are the richer for it – it’s lucky that her corporate bosses looked the other way as long as they did. Like many perfectionists, Sterne worked best on her own, and after the bottom-liners caught up with her she sadly never again found a comparable niche in the music business.

Now suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, she can at least take pride in this recognition of her unique contribution. Nonesuch continues to be a maverick in classical recording but with different priorities under its current director, Robert Hurwitz, who, with Norma Hurlburt, is responsible for this generous tribute to his predecessor. Not only are most of the great musicians of the Sterne era represented here, but the set comes with fond remembrances by her colleagues and the musicians she recorded. I’ll pay these discs the ultimate compliment: They could not be more musically rewarding or lovingly presented had Tracey Sterne produced them herself.

The Key to Bach