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András Schiff's Beethoven Cycle, Part 1

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Sonatas 1-4 (opp. 2 and 7)

available at Amazon
Sonatas 5-8 (opp. 10 and 13)
Since 2005, András Schiff has been recording a complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas, on the ECM New Series label. It is meant to be truly complete, with repeats of the exposition as well as of the development and recapitulation in the sonata-allegro forms. The catch that makes this recording stand out is that all of the recordings have been made live, in the Zurich Tonhalle, each release in the course of a single one-evening concert. This gives anyone who buys the CDs the chance to experience what they may never have had the chance to hear, a live rendition of all 32 sonatas. As is always the case in live recordings, there are a few warts that cannot be re-engineered, but the achievement is staggering nonetheless. Schiff reportedly postponed this project until he had turned 50, and the sound represents a mature and fully conceived intellect and technique.

András SchiffJens has written a thorough review of the first CD, to which the following comments may be appended. No. 1 feels a little disjointed in the first movement, until Schiff hits upon an ingenious way to handle the sforzandi section in the development (at around 2:18), where the accented notes pop out of the texture all akimbo and make a delightful rhythmic chain. For many pianists, myself included, this is the first real Beethoven sonata to fall under the fingers. Through it I remember "getting" Beethoven's stormy style when I was about 17.

Schiff takes the dedication of No. 2 (indeed, all three pieces in op. 2) to Haydn into his playful rendition of the sonata's first movement. It whirls and twitters, but some of the choices seem odd: as Beethoven takes the A theme through a tour of harmonic areas in the development, why is the descending triadic motif not articulated staccato as in the exposition? Because the accompanying figure comes from the legato B theme? The sonata has a rather uninteresting slow movement and a throw-away mini-scherzo, but the rondo returns to the character of Haydn, with its graceful arpeggiated flourishes and absurdly large leaps that are the signature of the main theme.

András Schiff's Lectures on the Beethoven Sonatas:
Sonatas 1-4

Sonatas 5-8

These recordings made in London's Wigmore Hall are all, smartly, in MP3 format, ready to go on your MP3 player.

Other Articles:

Benjamin Ivry, The Candid Chameleon (New York Sun, October 22)

James R. Oestreich, Grown Up Enough for Beethoven (New York Times, October 21)

Garaud MacTaggart, Pianist Schiff takes his cue from the music (Buffalo News, October 21)

Mark Swed, When Schiff is playing, do not disturb (Los Angeles Times, October 19)

Joshua Kosman, Schiff starts his march through Beethoven piano sonatas (San Francisco Chronicle, October 9)

Mark Stryker, Schiff continues journey through Beethoven sonatas (Detroit Free Press, September 30)
No. 3 is a much more rewarding sonata, especially its first movement, which Schiff performs with the right amount of brio. It has the best of Beethoven's early rondos as its fourth movement, but Schiff's reading is a little unsettled and his lengthened treatment of the final staccato note of the main theme's conclusion is not my taste. No. 4 seems like the result of a compositional leap forward from the op. 2 set to op. 7. The tempo of the first movement is all over the place. It seems like Beethoven has arranged things exactly as he wanted when he switches from the eighth-note motif to dotted quarters at measure 58. Schiff exaggerates the difference by slowing the tempo down at that point, which perhaps sets up the easier pace for the difficult arpeggiation of the closing theme at measure 100. That being said, Schiff handles the scherzo very nicely, indeed, with the Minore trio a crazy swirl of notes and forte-pianos.

With the three sonatas of op. 10, Beethoven seems to have found his mature voice. Schiff makes the most he can of the contrasts on no. 5 (op. 10/1), like the ff to p gestures, the rinf. and sfz markings, and an extremely fast, choppy (not necessarily rhythmically unified) finale after a placid, legato second movement. He has a way he plays full but staccato chords, all attack and almost no pitch (all consonant and no vowel, one might say if the sound were produced by a singer), that is very effective in many of the sonatas. While there are suave sounds a-plenty, it is the driven, forceful movements he seems to be most attracted to, and the approach is at its best in the Prestissimo last movement of no. 5.

Sometimes, the regular pulse is manipulated to the point of distortion, much faster here and much slower there. This works in many cases -- indeed it can be a laudable way to play Beethoven -- but in others, like the opening movement of no. 6, it made me a little seasick. At the same time, the final movement of that sonata is an absolutely crisp fugal romp. Some of the more impressive virtuosity in the cycle so far comes in the first movement of no. 7, where Schiff mostly just lets the score ride itself out, with that Schiffian hard-edged tone, punching the punctuation indicated by Beethoven. When Schiff spoke to Jessica Duchen for a preview of his Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall in Playbill Arts, he singled out no. 8 as a particular favorite, describing it as "an absolute masterpiece, and very mysterious," as well as "totally elusive." It is a fun sonata to play, and Schiff clearly relishes every minute.

We will add reviews of the Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Buffalo, and Carnegie Hall cycle performances as we read them.

ECM New Series 1940-1942

1 comment:

Anonymous said... has been forced off-line. This is a big loss for the musically-literate. Sorry for the unrelated post--just thought I'd help spread the word. I'm not sure if they want it, but it would be great if could get some substantial backing and salvage the project.