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András Schiff's Beethoven Cycle, Part 4

available at Amazon
Sonatas 16-18, 21 (opp. 31, 53), Andante favori (WoO 57)

(released September 25, 2007)
ECM New Series 1945-46

Online Score, Complete Beethoven Sonatas (VARIATIONS Online Prototype, University of Indiana Music Library)
This is the most recent installment of András Schiff's live recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas (ordered by date of composition -- see my reviews of Volumes 1 and 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4), right about at the point that the Beethoven sonatas become distinctly individualized from the tradition he inherited. Not so much with no. 16 (op. 31, no. 1), one of my least favorite Beethoven sonatas, striking me as somewhat labored and devoid of interesting ideas, at least by comparison to its immediate companion (op. 31, no. 2), subtitled "The Tempest." Schiff's performance is strong and workmanlike, but he does little to improve my opinion of no. 16.

Schiff was quoted musing on the connection of no. 17, a much more rewarding sonata, with Beethoven's reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest, "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." I tend to associate the second movement with Caliban's "the isle is full of noises" speech, for no good reason, except that the sweet melody is surrounded by strange sounds and (perhaps) "twangling instruments." Schiff not only gets all of the little bits and pieces, layering the sounds with hyper-effective coordination, but also creates an extraordinary tableau of the three movements (in spite of an unusual amount of audience coughing and other noise in this sonata, for whatever reason). Schiff's last movement seems to capture a neo-Baroque, style brisé sense of the court dances that pervade Shakespeare's play, a sort of fantasy interpretation of the English court masque.

András Schiff's Lectures on the Beethoven Sonatas:

Sonatas 16-18, 21

These recordings made in London's Wigmore Hall are all, smartly, in MP3 format, ready to go on your MP3 player.
The first movement of no. 18 (op. 31, no. 3 -- sometimes called, unhelpfully, "The Hunt") is almost a parody of the Rococo conventions we usually associate with Mozart's sonatas, the filigree runs in the upper octaves, the little chromatic wrong-note inflections, embellishment-like flourishes, and tittering gestures passed back and forth. The arch atmosphere continues through the daring, sometimes silly scherzo of the second movement, and the experimentation with harmonic and register displacement in the kooky, little minuetto, especially its trio. Ultimately, Schiff's incisive tone and almost machine-tooled accuracy serve him well in treating the Presto con fuoco not as an empty exercise in virtuosity but as a sort of skittish gigue.

Schiff has made quite an impression with critics in his interpretation of another well-known Beethoven sonata, no. 21 (op. 53). Dedicated to Count von Waldstein, the noble patron who was instrumental in bringing Beethoven from Bonn to Vienna, it was a kindly gesture to a man whose musical taste in helping Beethoven was far better than his sense in other areas. Schiff's tempo in the first movement is on the fast side, but even minor slips or misalignments are rare in this very solid performance, all the more impressive for being recorded live. In his Beethoven sonata lecture series at Wigmore Hall, all of which you can listen to online, Schiff spoke for almost 50 minutes about the Waldstein sonata alone (including playing excerpts), saying that it is one of his favorites but also that he came to it relatively late. This cycle is shaping up to be, if not the most musically thrilling, the most intelligent and well-considered reading of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

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