Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 27 in e; No. 28 in A; No. 29 in B?,
András Schiff (pn)
ECM 11906 (76:17) Live: 5/21/2006
Piano Sonatas: No. 30 in E; No. 31 in A?; No. 32 in c
András Schiff (pn)
ECM 11908 (64:28) Live: 9/23/2006
These two volumes bring to a close András Schiff’s cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas recorded live at various venues, on different instruments, and presented in chronological order of composition rather than in numerical order or by date of publication. The project was launched in 2005, and it has been my privilege to review the entire set, except for Volume 6, released in May 2008, but thus far not sent to me or, to my knowledge, to any other
contributor for review. So, for starters, let’s recap:
Overall, Schiff has been variable, turning in some of his best performances in the lesser-known sonatas than in the big named works in which he has occasionally sounded a bit too cautious. One of his main strengths has been in bringing out Beethoven’s quirky humor. As we move into the later sonatas presented on these two final volumes, however, quirkiness abounds, but it tends not to be of the humorous variety. Rather, it lies in the eccentricities of Beethoven’s notation and the strangeness, if not otherworldly visions of his music.
The huge and bold conception that is the “Hammerklavier” Sonata is, as I have argued elsewhere, not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. For all of its audacity and unprecedented dimensions, it is the logical endgame to the gambit begun in the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” Sonatas. It is the last three sonatas that represent embarkation aboard a ship sailing into uncharted waters. So how does Schiff handle this sea change in Beethoven’s journey that occurred between 1818, when the “Hammerklavier” was completed, and two years later, in 1820, when the ink had dried on the E-Major Sonata No. 30? His “Hammerklavier” is fleet and crisp, lighter in weight than we are accustomed to hearing, but perfectly styled to underscore my point above that the work is the apotheosis of all that came before it rather than the setting sail for distant shores. Schiff’s reading is also strongly architectural in that it reveals the structural underpinnings of the work, a completely valid and satisfying alternative to that, say, of Schnabel, who was more responsive to Beethoven’s fantasy on a moment-by-moment basis. If Schnabel was a bit more inclined to pause along the way to appreciate the Parthenon’s decorative friezes, Schiff envisions the edifice in more purely Classical terms of angle and proportion. He is not as apt to be distracted by the ornamental. The cumulative effect—and it must be emphasized that it is cumulative—is a very powerful and communicative performance. I’d rate Schiff’s “Hammerklavier” at or very near the top of his cycle, and one of the more persuasive to come along in awhile.
Switching to the second of the two discs, one senses immediately that Schiff gets it. It takes him no time at all to acquire his sea legs. This is a different ocean, but one that Schiff seems completely comfortable swimming in. My yardstick for measuring performances of the late sonatas is, as always, the last movement of the No. 30 in E-Major, for which Beethoven provided alternate expression directions in German and Italian that, while not conflicting, don’t mean exactly the same things.
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung
translates as “Songful, with the most intimate feeling,” whereas
Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo
translates as “At a moderately slow tempo, singing, and expressive.” The question appertains to the
. Did Beethoven mean
, which would qualify the tempo, or did he mean
, which would qualify the character? Then, too, the German direction is all about character, but says nothing of tempo. Schiff opts for the
qualifying the character rather than the tempo, which he takes at a not overly drawn-out true
. But his
, floating on gossamer wings to a blessed place of forgiveness and benediction. This final disc in Schiff’s Beethoven cycle is the best of all. Never have I heard the Bach roots of the fugue in the A?-Major Sonata exposed with such clarity.
The discs, which I received in prerelease format, include fascinating essays by Schiff on Beethoven’s late sonatas and various performing practices that have grown up around them.
For me, this is a desert island CD (a silly concept, unless you have solar cell rechargeable batteries to spin your discs). If you’ve been collecting the entire cycle, these last two entries need no special pleading; but even if you haven’t, Schiff’s “Hammerklavier” and last three sonatas come with a most urgent buy recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
See Volume 8 of this series Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Vol 8 / András Schiff
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Piano Sonata no 29 "Hammerklavier": III. Adagio sostenuto
Piano Sonata no 29 "Hammerklavier": IV. Allegro risoluto
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