In the fourth volume of András Schiff's live recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas (see my reviews of Volumes 1 and 2 and Volume 3), by Schiff's own reckoning, the early-style sonatas come to an end. Although the period division is in so many ways arbitrary, as Schiff himself acknowledges in the liner notes, it is hard to deny that we hear a stylistic break, right from the start of no. 12 (A-flat major, op. 26), in the austere variations of the first movement. If the hallmark of the middle period is the so-called "heroic" style, this is the sonata with the funeral march "on the death of a hero." Schiff notes that it is wrong to play it too slowly, and he instead keeps the idea of a steady march foremost, with the accents of solemn brass and percussion strokes. All of Beethoven's many specific indications are observed scrupulously by Schiff, without a sense of pedantic attention to detail.
Sonatas 12-15 (opp. 26-28)
(released May 22, 2007)
ECM New Series 1944
Online Score, Complete Beethoven Sonatas (VARIATIONS Online Prototype, University of Indiana Music Library)
The two sonatas of op. 27 are both given the modifier "quasi una fantasia," which indicates the fanciful character Beethoven intended. Typical of the composer's mature voice, all assumptions and conventions are to be regarded as alterable, with the order of movements and formal expectations open to experimentation. To my ears, nowhere is this announced more starkly than in the abrupt shift to the major VI in measure 17 of the first movement, unprepared from E-flat major to C major. The spirit of tonal ambiguity continues, with the scherzo in C minor shifting to A-flat major, the key of the brief slow movement. Although impressively consistent, Schiff's fourth movement is, if anything, a little mechanistic, which makes for a good contrast with the formally unexpected return of the slow movement's theme in the coda.
With no. 14, a successful performance requires removing the layers of varnish from one of the most familiar canvases in the history of classical music. Schiff makes the right call, ignoring the "Moonlight" moniker and focusing on the "quasi una fantasia" subtitle. His first movement's tempo is not really either adagio or sostenuto, but he strikes a mysterious tone, with a harp-like arpeggiation and unpedaled but thick texture. The second movement is a little ungraceful, but the third movement is set in precisely the right sort of fantasy mood, alternately tempestuous and moony. So, Schiff's reading is not always what one expects, and that is just what one actually wants.
These recordings made in London's Wigmore Hall are all, smartly, in MP3 format, ready to go on your MP3 player.
Reading Schiff's commentary in the liner notes, a detail-oriented dialogue with Martin Meyer (English translation by Misha Donat), is enlightening, as Schiff almost always explains his approach in an intelligible and well-justified way. With the final sonata in this volume, no. 15, he says that he is willing to work with the nickname "Pastorale," although it does not come from Beethoven. Indeed, his approach is understated, with a folksy simplicity, best suited to the light-hearted scherzo and trio (the latter's melody is even marked "quasi Oboe") but also the lilting gigue of the final movement. It is some of the happiest, least self-tortured music in the cycle.