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Schiff's Beethoven Lesson

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)
András Schiff has reached the end of his epic live recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. On Friday night Washington Performing Arts Society brought the Hungarian pianist to play a selection of Beethoven sonatas in a sold-out recital in the Music Center at Strathmore. The program was essentially the same as the fifth volume of the recorded series, minus the Andante favori movement (see also my reviews of the earlier parts of the series, v. 1-2, v. 3, v. 4). Later this month and again in the spring, Schiff will be completing live performances of the sonata cycle in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, and New York.

In the excellent lectures Schiff gave on the Beethoven sonata cycle at London's Wigmore Hall, available as podcasts, he describes the set of op. 31 sonatas the "midpoint of our journey through the Beethoven sonatas." Schiff notes that this set of three sonatas is a Rückblick, a looking back to the op. 2 and op. 10 sets. In the interest of presenting the set as a whole, Schiff programmed all three of the op. 31 sonatas in the first half, a demanding 80 minutes. The sharp attack noted in many of the volumes of Schiff's Beethoven recording was not as pronounced in the hall live: perhaps the near quality of the sound enhanced the effect. Schiff has said that he waited until he was 50 to begin this project, wanting to approach the sonatas with the necessary experience. What comes across is his intention to find the unexpected reading, the surprising tempo (fast or slow), the eyebrow-raising phrasing or articulation.

The three sonatas are completely different: the G major no. 1 is the "funniest Beethoven sonata" (with Schiff acknowledging Alfred Brendel's comments to that effect). In keeping with his analysis of op. 31/1, Schiff took a jocose approach, although even he probably did not appreciate the joke of the cricket that chirped almost constantly in the second movement (which Schiff interprets as a "parody of Italian opera," demonstrated in his lecture with a hilarious performance of "Va pensiero"). Op. 31/2 is a more dramatic sonata, rich in imagery, supposedly related to Beethoven's reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Schiff opened it with the mysterious chords arpeggiated with heavy pedal to create a mist of overtones. In spite of an overly methodical approach to the second movement, the emphasis was on the light and airy.

The tempi in the "Hunt" sonata were quite fast, which featured a feathery right-hand touch in all those silky scales played with great fluidity in the first movement. Schiff's left hand had a pleasing crispness in the second movement, and the rollicking pace of the third movement led to a slight unevenness at times. Strangest of all was op. 53, the "Waldstein," which formed the second half by itself. As if the cricket had not been distracting enough, a cell phone rang loudly and repeatedly in the first movement, where the opening theme had a placid, bubbling character. Schiff did something in the second theme that I had never noticed before, applying the sforzando in the fourth measure of that theme only to the lowest voice, which became the top voice of the second statement. The second movement was sphynxian from its enigmatic introduction, and the third seemed more deliberate than hymn-like.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Schiff Captures The Essence Of Beethoven (Washington Post, October 14)

Joshua Kosman, Schiff plays Beethoven's Op. 31 (San Francisco Chronicle, October 14)
By far the best part of this recital was the unexpected encore, all three movements of Bach's Italian Concerto, which Schiff dedicated to "the memory of my friend Paola Saffiotti and her family." Mrs. Saffiotti, a pianist by training who organized the now-defunct FAES concert series, passed away last month. As Schiff again demonstrated, Washington owes many excellent musical experiences to Mrs. Saffiotti, whose warmth and friendship not only brought the best musicians here but brought them back again. During an animated, polished rendition of the Bach, Schiff never put his foot on the sustaining pedal. At the end he shut the lid and closed his eyes, seemingly in a brief prayer for Paola, in which we all joined him.

The next concerts in the WPAS Classical series feature the Janaki String Trio (October 28, 7:30 pm) and pianist Maurizio Pollini (October 29, 8 pm).


Anonymous said...

I just purchased the last two CDs of this cycle today, and have vol. 7 playing right now. I won't presume to give an opinion, but it might be a telling point that Schiff decided not to use the concert recordings of the last three sonatas or vol. 8, but instead recorded them at a different venue (Neumarkt) with no audience present a few months later. (I won't get a chance to play vol. 8 until at least tomorrow, so I can't say just now if vol. 8 is perceptibly different.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Interesting observation. I am still listening to the final three discs of the series. There are occasional crowd sounds in the early volumes.

Evan Tucker said...

Your line about the 'unexpected reading' hit it right on the mark. Schiff seemed to spend the entire concert taking us to the unfamiliar nooks and crannies. For all the oddities, his performances still beat a lot of pianists better known for their Beethoven. I've never heard any of these pieces played with more variety of color. But I couldn't help spending the concert wondering if Schiff would ever cut lose and allow for some more red-blooded extroversion. The blunt edges seemed smoothed away. It all made me wonder...why don't we ever hear Schiff in Debussy?