Notes and Editorial Reviews
The best for a long time to come.
This is volume VI of András Schiff’s much praised chronological Beethoven cycle of the complete sonatas recorded live at the Tonhalle Zürich, which will consist of eight volumes on completion. In this set, Schiff covers sonatas from the period between 1804 and 1810, and presents some of the most famous and widely-known works in one place. The extreme variety of Beethoven’s forms and conceptions in this period serves to highlight the effectiveness of Schiff’s chronological approach.
The programme opens with the two-movement Op.54 sonata, which combines lyricism and drama in an incredible emotional range. Schiff’s touch is assured right from the start, with
subtlety and articulation ensuring that the textures of the music shimmer like opalescent glass. Nor does he shy away from the crucial theatricality of Beethoven’s writing, as the recurrence of the weighty descending bass line in the Allegretto shows – again, by contrast, highlighting the transparency of the Bach-like imitative and contrapuntal writing elsewhere.
My main comparison has been with another complete set, that of Daniel Barenboim on EMI. This was recorded in the 1960s in Abbey Road and still sounds very good, having been my CD reference for complete cycles for many years now, a place previously held by Wilhelm Kempff in a big heavy box of 1950s mono DG LPs. I do have to say that Schiff fair blows the young Barenboim out of the water with his live recordings. When I came to compare the two players, I was sometimes confronted with Barenboim’s now seemingly relatively gentle, almost feminine approach. Where Schiff tightens in intensity through clarity and articulation, Barenboim often spreads things out to give more atmosphere. True, his ‘Appassionata’ is filled with fiery playing and extremes of contrast, but Schiff somehow connects the soft passages to those tempestuous outbursts by maintaining a fearsome grip on the former: still giving us the shock and thrills of Beethoven’s extravagance, but never allowing the pools of limpid lyricism to stray from the taut path of a narrative which fate decreed must include both at once. His second movement, Andante con moto holds onto that forward pulse, bringing in that chorale and its variations at 6:38 to Barenboim’s 8:05. Schiff has been criticised earlier in this cycle for finicky attention to detail almost to the point of mannerism, but I like his extreme clarity in this and other movements – it somehow seems to bring us closer to Beethoven, the magnificence of the rendition unencumbered by too much ‘personality’ from the pianist. This is far from saying that Schiff allows his character to be effaced by the music or that his performances are any less than distinctive and, once heard, instantly recognisable. The power that comes through does seem more to be that of the ‘great composer’ than that of a ‘great pianist’, for which I for one am grateful.
The substantial booklet notes take the form of a conversation between András Schiff and Martin Meyer, illustrating Schiff’s thought on the music, the chronological approach with its stylistic references and removal of the stereotypes of programming – the more usual placing of the ‘Appassionata’ as the last work in a recital, for instance. Schiff also emphasises the importance of the inner pulse, even when Beethoven’s creative pots and pans are flying all over the place: “Creative freedom [should not] degenerate into a tempo-less interpretation”.
Schiff’s insight of course covers all of the works on this disc, and includes admissions to the technical difficulties in virtuoso movements such as the Allegro vivace of the Sonata in F sharp minor Op.78. Schiff also manages to exploit the humour in this movement however, which becomes a character piece in its own right – full of breathtaking figurations and harmonic twists and turns. Unfatigued, either as performer or listener, we can revel in Beethoven’s calling card as a performer, the extrovert and witty Sonata in G major Op.79. Schiff has great fun with the dance-like rhythms in this piece, allowing its directness of musical language free rein, giving us all a break from the complex intensities of the other sonatas.
The final sonata, Op. 81a, appropriately named ‘Les Adieux’, or rather ‘Das Lebewohl’ by Beethoven himself, is dedicated “On the departure of His Imperial Highness the esteemed Archduke Ferdinand”. The work as a whole presents a wonderful portrayal of a spiritual state somewhere between that initial farewell, the absence or Abwesenheit in the second movement, and joyful reunion in the finale, Das Wiedersehen. Schiff points out that this piece should not be seen as programme music, but indicates the little leitmotiefs and themes which have an arguable poetic symbolism which would seem to go hand-in-glove with the titles and emotional intention of the music. It may be the power of suggestion, but to my ears these aspects in the piece are brought vividly to life under Schiff’s fingers, and I can imagine a contemporary audience ‘getting’ the references with no difficulty whatsoever.
There are many great Beethoven cycles in the catalogue, and no new version will take anything away from the mastery of pianists such as Gilels or Kempff. In my humble opinion, András Schiff’s cycle is however one very much for our times, bringing Beethoven with a refreshing directness and interpretative clarity which will make this cycle one of the best for a long time to come. ECM’s track record on piano recordings is second to none, and the sound on this release is truly excellent. Live performance has its own sense of brilliance and spontaneity, and while I’m sure there may well have be some ‘tidying up’ I never once spotted an edit, the audience is entirely silent, and there is no applause anywhere.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
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