It should be obvious from our interview above that for all his breadth and depth of knowledge in the disciplines of music, art, literature, and philosophy in general, and his breadth and depth of learning and scholarly insight into the music of Bach in particular, Burkard Schliessmann is, at heart, an unapologetic Romantic, a state of being that finds expression in his playing of these works. This is not to say that you will hear exaggerated cadential ritards, idiosyncratic tempo adjustments, rhythmic unsteadiness, or phrasing irregularities. Schliessmann is too knowledgeable and respectful of Bach to allow any corrupting influences to taint his readings of the scores.
Where his “Romantic” approach comes in, if you wish to call it that, is in his stated belief that once you’ve made the jump to play Bach on the piano, you have to do so with full committment, to play not in the style you would on harpsichord, but to take advantage of all the possibilities offered by the concert grand. Interestingly, Schliessmann reflects my own attitude in this matter, for on more than one occasion I’ve said in reviews that the most successful performers of Bach on piano—such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff, Murray Perahia, and Craig Sheppard—do not attempt to simulate or imitate a harpsichord sound; they embrace the instrument at their disposal for what it is and what it can do.
Listen, for example to Schliessmann’s playful offsetting of the voices in the Rondeaux movement from the C-Minor Partita, taking advantage of the piano’s ability to produce chiaroscuro effects of lighting certain notes and shading others. This movement and the following Capriccio with which the Partita ends are both some of Bach’s most wiggly, giggly music, and Schliessman’s performance of them will make you chortle.
The same may be said of his first movement of the Italian Concerto . Just listen to the twist he gives Bach’s rhythmic variant in bars 37–38 of the straight 16ths that precede it in bars 35–36. It just tickles me every time I hear it. We tend to have this image of a serious and severe Bach scowling under that white wig, but anyone who could write music like this had to have a keen sense of humor and an appreciation for the ribald joke. This is something Schliessmann understands, and it comes through in his wonderfully perceptive playing.
But not all is fun or funny in these works. There’s the beautifully lamenting second movement of the Italian Concerto , an aria in all but name, and the plaintive A-Minor fugue, to both of which Schliessman brings real depth of feeling. And then, of course, there’s the great Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue , a work which stands alone in Bach’s output, but which clearly has precedent in the so-called stylus phantasticus in the works of Frescobaldi and other earlier 17th-century keyboardists.
This is the one piece I personally prefer to hear on harpsichord. This not to diminish Schliessmann’s performance of it in any way—it’s as illuminating as everything else he does—but there’s something about the harpsichord’s jangling sounds and clomping effect of its jacks falling back from the strings—effects totally eliminated by the piano’s silent mechanism—that adds to the atmospherics and eccentricities of the thing.
Be that as it may, Schliessmann’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is as audacious and bodacious as any on piano I know. A fantastic Bach recital all around, and in an SACD recording that projects the piano right into your listening space with a three-dimensional effect that spreads the keyboard in front of you from left to right and the full length of Schliessman’s Steinway concert grand from front to back. This earns the strongest of recommendations.