Since 2005, András Schiff has been recording a complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas, on the ECM New Series label, all from live concert performances (see my review of the first two discs). Schiff spoke about the experience with Stuart Isacoff for an article (Lessons From Beethoven and Life, October 31) in the Wall Street Journal:
Sonatas 9-11, 19-20 (opp. 14, 22, 49)
(released October 10, 2006)
ECM New Series 1943
Online Score, Complete Beethoven Sonatas (VARIATIONS Online Prototype, University of Indiana Music Library)
"There can be a born Mozart interpreter, or a born Schubert interpreter," [Schiff] continued. "But in my mind there is no such thing as a born Beethoven interpreter -- you have to learn how to approach this work, and much of that comes from life's lessons. Mozart is not really human: He's superhuman. Beethoven is one of us -- but the best of us."Schiff's approach to the first movement of no. 9 (op. 14, no. 1), one of my favorite early sonatas to play, is fairly light, with a gossamer touch in the exposition that makes the sforzandi stand out (Schiff states in the liner notes that an "ethereal character" is announced merely by the use of the key of E major). The only really bravura moment is the full statement of the main theme at the recapitulation, and this helps the listener understand the form. The hushed character is carried through the Allegretto, a mysterious dance in the parallel minor, and a serene Rondo, marked Allegro comodo, with an understated playfulness.
Mr. Schiff had played some of these sonatas all his life. But learning the entire set was an adventure. Along with the scores, he studied the composer's conversation books, letters, manuscripts and first editions. "Luckily, we know a lot more about Beethoven than we know about Bach," he explains. "His life is documented because of his loss of hearing -- so much of it is actually written down. He was a deeply cultured person who read a lot and was very passionate about Shakespeare. He respected Goethe and Schiller, and loved Greek and Latin literature and art. So you have to follow him there. These all offer clues. Yet, each of us still has to come up with our own solutions when interpreting the music. If the D Minor Sonata is connected with Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' -- after which it was named -- well, you can read 'The Tempest,' but you still have to figure out what the music really means. I find that Prospero's monologues give me an inspiration about how to play the recitatives in the first movement."
The opening of no. 10 is marred by some minor audience noise (a dropped program?), the risk of live recording. Although Schiff gives the first movement a similar character as he did to no. 9, the development turns a little more toward the middle period, especially with an ingenious false recapitulation, in E-flat instead of G, which slides back to G minor. The second movement is the first set of variations in a Beethoven sonata, with a dry-wit theme. Schiff, as noted in the first two discs, does not shy away from a real, unpedaled staccato. He states this clearly in the liner notes about this movement: "the performer has to play the short notes exactly as they are written. I mention this, because I have the impression that nowadays many players are worried by short note-values, and prefer to pedal through them." The same biting attack is present in the Scherzo, a sort of rondo with a wry theme.
What a difference a year makes with the much more Beethovenian sound of no. 11 (op. 22, B-flat major). In the first movement Schiff runs with the brash con brio marking and the greater technical demands, or as he calls it, appropriately, the "orchestral" approach we expect of the mature Beethoven piano sonata. The minuetto is little more than a trifle, with a few odd harmonic spices thrown in and a tempestuous minor-mode trio. The contrast of the rondo with the two little op. 49 sonatas (both labeled facile and from the late 1790s), both in two movements, is striking. With those two almost-sonatinas, often played by intermediate students, Schiff is generally reserved, adding only some lively embellishments for his own amusement.
Sonatas 9-11, 19-20
These recordings made in London's Wigmore Hall are all, smartly, in MP3 format, ready to go on your MP3 player.