The Master Class focused on Schiff's specialty, the music of JS Bach. He coached student pianists on four major works by Bach: the English Suite in E Minor, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, the Goldberg Variations, and the Partita #6 in E Minor.
Bach’s music is often treated as merely erudite and “cerebral,” as academic and masterful; since it so often serves as the technique-builder for keyboard players (as well as for players of other instruments), it tends to be associated with “playing out of duty for technique” rather than “playing with feeling for enjoyment.” Schiff is remarkable for casting off the impoverished, purely technical approach to Bach, both in his playing and his teaching.
"There is never anything mechanical about Bach,” says Schiff. He insists that the player remember that these pieces are *dances*. Not all the notes and shapes of melody should have uniform shape and articulation. Use variety of color. Think harmonically, and bring out the structure.
Schiff intimately knows the harmony of each piece, and can play the structure of the piece in chords from memory--a condensed version without the complexities of note-motions, just the essentialized progression of sonorities.
Schiff never loses sight of the music’s emotional dimension, its sensuous beauty and rich flow. Singing the melody and conducting in a demonstration, he says the Goldberg Variations express joie de vivre. This is not exactly what we traditionally associate with Bach the heavy moralist, the dour Lutheran, the monolithic German master!
Schiff recommends overholding—sustaining the tones of melody so that they slightly overlap with one another--to make the interval interference real, accentuating the expressive quality of the intervals.
Schiff is opposed to violent, aggressive playing; his own playing is more "buttery" and fluid and sweet. He insists that the player does not need a hard, harsh tone quality. There should be no “wooden” sound or stiffness, but freedom. Feel the pulse, he says, like a dance, a certain quality of movement. "You have to speak clearly if you want to be understood.”
"You have to play for the most intelligent listeners. Don't underestimate them. They know where the downbeat is." You don't have to hammer it. Avoid unmusical accents.
Schiff points out that Bach's manuscript handrwriting uses wavy lines, not straight ones like printed music. This reflects the affect Bach intended: a natural and organic flow, not a mechanistic and technocratic approach.
Compare the rectilinear squareness of the printed score (left) as opposed to the curvy beams connecting the notes in Bach's original manuscript (right).
The capstone of the whole event was the moment Schiff transformed a student’s interpretation with the advice: "play the melody like it's Chopin.”