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András Schiff at the Beginning of a Long, Musical Journey

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L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op. 2 & 7, A. Schiff
Two very exciting ECM releases came out in late September and early October. With Gidon Kremer one of the most intelligent musicians takes on one of the most intellectual works in classical music – the holy grail of the solo violin’s repertoire - the unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach. First listening revealed a bold, exciting, and edgy account. (Charles has since written a review for Ionarts.) The other project, monumental in promise, is a complete Beethoven sonata cycle – all to be recorded live in Zurich – from András Schiff. It looks like he will tackle it in chronological order, starting with the first four sonatas in this first volume. That the sonatas come together and open the cycle should give these too rarely heard and more rarely yet performed works some of the attention they undoubtedly deserve.

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L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op. 2 & 7, A. Kuerti
I compared the sonatas, starting with Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, op. 2, no. 1, in four movements (Allegro – Adagio – Menuetto: Allegretto – Prestissimo), against Anton Kuerti’s version from his complete cycle for Analekta and against Willhelm Kempff’s mono recording on DG. (Actually, my Kempff recording, alleged to be the “official mainland China release” and looking much like the German yellow label, turns out to be part of the “Encyclopedia of Holy Classical Music.” A pirate with a sense of humor or a bad translating program. Either way, the Chinese route is not Ionarts’ recommended way to get this great cycle that is, lamentably, not available in the U.S. Apart from being pirate or unlicensed issues, the discs don’t all play properly, either. Ditto for Kubelik’s Mahler cycle attained through the same channels.)

The movements of the sonata broken down by timing show the following:

Sonata no. 1IIIIIIIVTotal
Kempff (I)4’33’’4’41’’3’02’’5’23’’17’33’’

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L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op. 2 & 7, W. Kempff (mono)
It tells us little, however, because Schiff isn’t a sloth – he merely takes all the indicated repeats (and then some) whereas neither Kempff nor Kuerti take those that are regularly ignored. Anton Kuerti lets the first movement (and generally all the sonatas he plays) breathe more, is gentler at the theme in bar 10 and its recurrence in bar 110. He lingers over notes and fermatas. Schiff takes a second repeat (bars 49-152) in that Allegro, presenting the movement as two repeated halves. (My Schenker score does not indicate that repeat. While I can see that it may well make sense in terms of balance, I have, as a listener, no preference one way or the other. The material is just about strong enough to sustain it, but not so complex or interesting as to demand it.) In the Adagio Kuerti is much slower – to the point of lumpiness. 6’35’’ vs. 4’18’’ is a significant difference – Schiff is 40 percent faster! Kempff’s soft touch makes his 4’41’’ seem more like a middle way between the two than the time difference alone would indicate. In the Menuetto: Allegretto Schiff is more robust than the others; Kuerti gooey in the Allegretto part, Kempff fleet and the fastest. None take the pianissimo in bar 35/36 of that movement very seriously. The fourth movement is unmistakably Beethoven. At 4’50’’ Schiff is marginally slower than Kuerti (who really shows that he doesn’t play so slow so often for lack of ability) but a good bit quicker than the less forward-driving, heavier Kempff. Then Schiff proceeds to take the second repeat that neither of the other two bothers with.

I prefer Kuerti in the first, Kempff in the second, and Schiff in the third and fourth movement. It’s a shame I didn’t have my Ashkenazy set around, because I remember that, although disappointing as a whole, it was a delight in the early sonatas. Then again, dissecting and comparing the sonata any further would only have detracted too much from the enjoyment of listening to it. As it was, comparison became tedious toward the end because the sonata may withstand repeated listening – but not movement by movement some eight, nine times in a row. Since few buyers of this disc would listen to it in the same manner, I tried to give sonatas 2 to 4 a slightly more casual ear.

Sonata no. 2IIIIIIIVTotal
Kempff (I)5’32’’7’02’’3’17’’7’13’’22’21’’

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L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op. 2 & 7, W. Kempff (stereo)
The rumbling, thunderous theme of the first movement (at bars 130ff) of the second sonata of op. 2 (all three are dedicated to Joseph Haydn) is so dry with Kempff (the bass notes don’t ring very long) that I all but miss it if I don’t concentrate on the music. On occasion a couple of notes here and there clatter about with the old master – but he is pretty nimble all the same. Kempff skips the first repeat entirely, Schiff is so thorough that he takes bars 122 to 336 a second time. Since that happens to include my favorite part (the above-mentioned ‘theme’), I am all for it. Compared to Schiff, who takes everything at a very relaxed pace, Kuerti surprises with speed, takes the first repeat, and delivers an altogether very agreeable first movement.

The Largo appassionato sounds slow, almost no matter how you play it. The difference between Schiff (6’46’’) and Kuerti (8’33’’ – the last 15 bars alone take over 1½ minutes) looks larger than it sounds. In the Scherzo - Allegretto Kempff is wispy and speeds through things in a refreshing no-nonsense manner. Kuerti works the material perhaps a bit beyond its worth, whereas Schiff’s approach is very fluid. After all-too exhaustive listening, however, the initial pleasure of these works receded a little and I needed a few weeks distance to return for sonatas nos. 3 and 4. It has actually been months, since then; the works have been released and reviewed and now, finally, called me back to the unfinished review.

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L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op. 2 & 7, V. Ashkenazy
In Beethoven’s op. 7, dedicated to Babette von Keglevics, the composer is already noticeably bolder in his statements than in the three preceding sonatas. It isn’t a much longer work than the second sonata, but it is clearly an important step towards the musical language that we now associate with Beethoven in his piano works and ‘feels’ larger. Not surprisingly, it was published as “The Great Sonata.” That it is written in E-flat major, the same key that his Eroica Symphony would be written in six years later, shouldn’t be made out as too important; for one, the sense of the tragic that the 3rd Symphony has is mostly absent in the sonata once nicknamed “Verliebte” (Nominative, Singular, Feminine for “in love”). Toscanini’s immortal (and probably slightly misquoted) words, applicable to any work bound to be overinterpreted, about the Beethoven 3rd might be considered: “Is not ‘Napoleon’, is not ‘Erocia’… is ‘Allegro con brio’.” Similarly, “E-flat major” isn’t always ‘heroic’, even if op. 55 and Ein Heldenleben are prominent exponents of that link.

Schiff takes some repeats that are generally not taken and brings a fast but hardly blistering Allegro molto e con brio home in just over nine minutes. The dynamic, punctuated way he tackles the notes doesn’t benefit the flow of the movement and seems exaggerated compared to an equally fleet (7:31) - if not even faster but much more fluid - approach by Kurti. Some notes are plunked down in ungainly fashion. The lovely Largo con gran espressione grinds down almost to a halt, a near-complete loss of musical line. When the music gatheres a little more speed (but still not enough) after some very ponderous chords (at about the 7-minute mark), it’s too late to make much of a difference. Although needing considerably less time than the contemplative Kuerti (8:52 against 10:37), the latter does not sound worse and much of the extra time Kuerti needs to finish the slow movement comes in form of pauses and strategically placed silences. In either case, the ‘gran espressione’ should not have come at the cost of slouching through it all. Schiff’s third movement (Allegro - 5:11) in comparison is perfectly judged, with a light touch that sparkles. Here, as in the preceding movement, I found the audience and environmental noises a little more noticeable than in the other sonatas – a cough, page turning, a creaking floor board audible here and there. This comes through in any noticeable (and hardly disturbing) way only on good and analytical speakers or excellent headphones. His Bösendorfer (Schiff plays the sonatas, depending on their style, on a Bösendorfer or Steinway - although the notes don't tell, this one seems to have been recorded on the former) sounds a bit brittle at times and not particularly round on top. That's quite contrary to the natural Bösendorfer sound, actually, and is more likely a matter of the miking being very close. He finishes the sonata with a very solid but not necessarily memorable Rondo. Poco allegretto e grazioso.

A successful but not miraculous start to what will be a promising if unlikely definitive cycle (all sonatas will be recorded after touring and playing them in numerous live recitals). On its own, the disc – although more expensive than it should be – might well and justifiably appeal to someone looking for the first couple of Beethoven’s sonatas which are not likely to be found so easily outside complete or at least larger collections. Listening and comparing to those four works was a case in point that I have not yet come across a cycle that I enjoy equally in all sonatas (or even all movements) and that even the much adored Kempff mono cycle is hardly the non plus ultra it is sometimes made out to be. Versions I do not have but would have been interested in judging this set against would have been Gulda (either the early recordings on Decca or the later, allegedly even better, recordings now re-issued on Brilliant), Goode (Nonesuch), Brendel III (Philips), and Kovacevich (EMI). And there is, of course, Pollini on the horizon – sooner or later to issue a complete cycle on DG. His un-Romantic, unmannered, and straight-laced approach, coupled with the usual perfection, should be very interesting to hear and might well be the refreshing interpretations that the first four sonatas are yearning for.


Anonymous said...

Good to have read your long-awaited review on Schiff's Beethoven piano sonata recording. I am looking forward to revisit this CD with your remarks in mind.

Anonymous said...

Is there a word limit on comments? If not... there is an interesting article published in “The Australian” last Monday:

"HUNGARIAN pianist Andras Schiff once walked out on a coughing audience in Edinburgh and he walked out of Austria when the far Right did well in the 1999 elections.
So, when this world-renowned interpreter of Bach, Bartok and Schubert performs the cycle of all 32 Beethoven sonatas, should audiences be prepared for a ... tempest?
Not if they switch off their mobile phones and have not come, as Schiff puts it during an interview in his London flat, in a largely Arab neighbourhood he calls Little Baghdad, "to have a good cough".
They should also leave any preconceptions at the door. Schiff is not going to give in to public demand for anything called Moonlight -- perhaps the most famous -- although it is on his programs under its original name of Opus 27 No.2.
"For a lot of these works, especially the ones with the nicknames like the Pathetique or the Moonlight Sonata -- which is a wrong name because this is really not by Beethoven -- there is a thick layer you can call varnish but I rather call it dirt," Schiff says in the white-carpeted study of his mews home, with a complete first edition of Dickens on the bookshelf. "Generation after generation has played this so-called Moonlight Sonata because they have heard their grandmother play it like that."
Late last year, Schiff, 52, released the first volume of his Beethoven sonata cycle, containing the Sonatas from Opus 2 and 7, through his recording company, ECM. This year, he will perform the sonatas chronologically in dozens of concerts across Europe, and next year will take them to the US. He has done his homework -- for 20 years, he says -- before lifting the scales of tradition from the Beethoven cycle.
"I was not ready for it before," he says. "It is maybe the hardest mountain to climb, something that does not come by birth but by life. It is a very hard nut to crack to me."
It is a body of work sometimes called the New Testament of Western music, as opposed to the Old Testament of Bach's Well Tempered Klavier and has no shortage of recordings, from Artur Schnabel's in the 1930s to Richard Goode's in the 1990s.
No matter. The diminutive Schiff, the son of two Holocaust survivors who started him taking piano lessons at the age of five, approaches the works with reverence, passion and a keen eye.
Schiff studied manuscripts, checked the tempo, dynamic and pedal markings, even analysed Beethoven's handwriting for clues. The result: the name imposed on the Opus 27 C sharp minor sonata by a minor German poet after a moonlit night on Lake Lucerne is banished, and Schiff plays the famous first movement faster than most. There are more surprises in store, even for people who believe they know the pieces inside out.
"My approach is very much a restoration, like restoring art, but I hope not to be too bright, like some art restorations," he says.
So far, so good, from the reviewers' corner, although some find his use of two pianos, a Steinway and a Bosendorfer, odd.
"For most pianists, such extravagance would smack of preciousness," the reviewer for Britain's Guardian newspaper wrote after a recent concert. "But with Schiff, it's all part of a magnificently complete approach to these pieces."
Take the sleek Bosendorfer, for example. Schiff uses it for the subtler and softer Viennese tones of Beethoven, who grappled in his adopted city with growing deafness. It is this battle, which Beethoven waged for the last 30 years of his life, that Schiff believes gives his music its heroic quality, rivalled -- in another realm -- only by Shakespeare.
"It's like ... within the same evening you have to play Hamlet, Romeo, King Lear and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream," he says. "That's why I find this so challenging, and I don't find this range of expression in any other music."
Schiff does not think of himself as being heroic, or particularly temperamental -- despite having walked out on the Edinburgh audience until it quietened down. He does, however, have strong views. He left Austria, his adopted home following his defection from communist Hungary in the 1980s, after Joerg Haider's anti-immigration party won its way into a coalition government. Haider's power has since waned and Schiff has been back to Austria.
"There are to me two countries in this world, Germany and Austria, who have a different history, recent history, and therefore a right-wing movement with certain undertones -- not even undertones -- if it emerges from Austria or from Germany it rings differently," he says.
Growing up in Budapest, Schiff had a musical education all but unattainable elsewhere. He also attracted the occasional rude comment as a lone Jewish boy in a Catholic neighbourhood, which he describes in a book published in Hungary.
"That's an important passage, when the boy came from next door and said, `You cannot play soccer with us because you killed Christ'," he recalls.
Today, Schiff and his wife, Japanese violinist Yuuko Shiokawa, live in London and Florence, which Schiff loves for its art and beauty, and he is contemplating life after Beethoven. He hopes to teach, conduct, write, master Debussy and help to educate a musically interested but ignorant public,
he says.
"I think we have reached a point when music cannot take care of itself," he says. "We have to verbalise it, we have to explain it. There's nothing wrong with it and those who can do it should."

Anonymous said...

thank you for that!

Martini said...

Pollini has already recorded and released the three first sonatatas (op.2), in case you missed it.

Anonymous said...

Good for Schiff. Candid and sincere opinions, however strong, are more than welcome in this rarefied climate.

opus111 said...

I was very please to come across this thoughtful post. I also own all three of these recordings and find much to be admired in each of them. Let me thank you for bringing Kuerti into the picture: His set is unjustly neglected, and I still consider it one of the finest cycles on record. You've probably read that he's issued the late sonatas again, though his earlier recordings still take pride of place in my collection.