András Schiff’s Bach extravaganza

Courtesy PhotoVirtuoso: András Schiff begins a two-year residency with San Francisco Symphony in October.

András Schiff’s devotion to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is complete and unconditional.

“Why Bach? It’s like asking why is the sky blue and why do we need to breathe,” says the acclaimed Hungarian pianist, who plays the first program of a two-year cycle of Bach’s keyboard works in The City next week. “Every day I start with an hour or more of Bach, food for the heart, the mind, the spirit and the body. All great music after Bach derives from him.”

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The series — being repeated in New York and Los Angeles — is virtually unprecedented. The last time Bach’s keyboard works received such major exposition was 80 years ago in Berlin, when Claudio Arrau performed them “all” — an imprecise term for Bach’s nearly limitless canon — in 14 recitals.

Schiff, 58 — who has won prizes for performing Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann — is most associated with Bach. The relationship is so intense, Schiff plays all of the works from memory, a prodigious accomplishment.

October’s concerts in San Francisco  feature immense pieces, including “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Books I and II. Running more than two hours, each part consists of 24 preludes and fugues spanning the 12 major and minor
keys.

In addition to the recitals, Schiff also will lecture, and he will lead the San Francisco Symphony in a program of Bach keyboard concertos and works by Mendelssohn.

Next year’s programs, in April, include the French and English Suites.

The idea for the series came from Schiff, but he credits “good partners” — the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances, which is co-producing some of the recitals.

John Mangum, director of artistic planning for the symphony, who has held a similar position with the New York Philharmonic, has worked on the Schiff series twice.

He calls the pianist “a musician-philosopher with phenomenal technique, somebody who spent a lifetime with Bach.” The series, Mangum says, come “at a point of Schiff reassessing the great master.”

Schiff himself speaks of a “logical and coherent” approach to Bach through the upcoming cycles.

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