Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 16 in G; No. 17 in d,
No. 18 in E?; No. 21 in C,
Andante in F,
“Andate favori,” WoO 57
András Schiff (pn)
ECM 00096602 (2 CDs: 105:46) Live: Zurich 12/4/2005
This is Volume 5 in András Schiff’s long completed Beethoven piano sonata cycle, which ECM is releasing piecemeal. It comes to me in
pre-release format three weeks in advance of its official U.S. street date of September 25, 2007, so I am not privy to what the retail price will be when it hits the shelves; since the total playing time is on the short side for two discs, I would expect it to be sold at less than the full price for a two-CD set.
If one wonders why the “Waldstein” Sonata—No. 21 in the canon—follows No. 18 in the headnote, it’s because Schiff played the sonatas in concert in chronological order of composition. The two op. 49 works (Nos. 19 and 20) are known to have been written sometime between 1795 and 1798 and have already appeared on Volume 3, since they predate the 1802 op. 31 set of sonatas on the current release. The “Andante favori,” which concludes the program, was originally to have been the second (slow) movement of the “Waldstein”; whatever urgings persuaded him to rethink the sonata’s overall form, Beethoven discarded the Andante movement and replaced it with a fragmentary, shadowy abstraction in unsettled harmonic progressions—a pre-echo of the slow movement of the “Ghost” Trio?—that melts magically into the major-minor ambiguity of the last movement’s equivocally comforting theme.
Arguably, the “Waldstein” (1803–04) was Beethoven’s greatest piano sonata to date; less arguable is Schiff’s observation that “its spatial dimensions alone are enormous, and were only exceeded later by those of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata.” Schiff’s performance emphasizes the scale and expansiveness of the piece, with the last movement’s Allegretto moderato taken commodiously.
The printed material accompanying the CDs attaches a moniker, “The Hunt,” to the E?-Major Sonata, op. 31/3. I don’t believe this is a nickname I’ve seen associated with this sonata before. The title, I suppose, might be applied to the Presto con fuoco last movement, whose galloping
could be heard as hunters and their barking dogs in furious pursuit of the fox, but this is a fanciful interpretation.
The three sonatas that comprise the op. 31 group date from 1802, and are actually the last piano sonatas Beethoven would publish under a single opus number. Each is cut from a very different cloth, with the middle sonata in D Minor, op. 31/2, standing out as the most enduringly popular, if not necessarily any more worthy of our attention. Its long associated nickname, “The Tempest,” is perhaps more descriptive of the score’s musical content, and has assured the piece a special place in Beethoven’s canon, something nicknames usually accomplish.
As with previous volumes in Schiff’s Beethoven cycle, one finds much to admire, but also some things that evoke a less positive response. Oddly, it is in the two famous “name” sonatas here—the “Tempest” and the “Waldstein”—that I personally find Schiff the least satisfying. Technical execution is perfect, but there is what I can only describe as a rigidity to the playing that seems more intent on getting every note exactly in place rather than conveying the sense of a spontaneous performance. Tempos in the first movements of both sonatas (indeed throughout the entire recital) seem a bit cautious to me, but then perhaps I’ve had my expectations raised by Fazil Say. In any case, the effect in the “Tempest” Sonata is rampage and rage reduced to a huff, while much of the “Waldstein’s,” bustling energy and loony-tunes humor comes across as doggedly determined.
Where Schiff hits his stride and excels is in the first and last of the op. 31 set (Nos. 16 and 18). Perhaps not as daunted by the pressure of having to deliver in the famous “name” sonatas, Schiff lets his hair down, relaxes, and has lots of fun with both of these zany musical cartoons. If the last movement of No. 18 does indeed depict a hunt, it is one where the fox outfoxes the hunters; and Schiff’s acrobatic gallop over hedges and darting through hollow logs made me laugh out loud.
Once again then, uneven performances, but easily recommended for the Nos. 16 and 18 sonatas, and to those who are collecting the full cycle. ECM is to be commended for consistently delivering some of the best solo-piano recorded sound.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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