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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas: Vol. VIII
Sonata No.30 in E major Op.109 (1820) [18:52]
Sonata No.31 in A flat major Op.110 (1821) [19:04] 
Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111 (1821-22) [26:45]
András Schiff (piano)
rec. 23 September 2007, Historischer Reitstadel Neumarkt/Oberpfalz
ECM NEW SERIES 1949 4766192


Experience Classicsonline

In the booklet notes for this, the final volume of András Schiff’s complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas, the pianist opens with an explanation of his performing and recording processes: those which led to the works being performed live in the Zurich Tonhalle. Alert readers will note that this eighth volume has been moved to a different location. Schiff, after providing something of an admission that the concert for these pieces was less of a success, decided to re-record the final three sonatas in the empty hall of the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, a few months after the Zurich performance. Collectors worried by inconsistency in such a release may have their concerns validated by hearing the somewhat more cavernous acoustic of an empty concert hall, and the reduction in the urgent immediacy, the sense of discovery which the live performances provided. Hearing these recordings, and I can’t help feeling it might have been a nice idea for ECM to have released them as a double CD along with the initial live performances, but if Schiff wasn’t happy with the ‘original’ recordings then we have to take it from him that these are satisfactory substitutes.

Satisfactory they most certainly are, and in any analysis there can be no doubting András Schiff’s deep-seated response to these works, and his superlative mastery of both their technical and their spiritual problems and secrets. Still in possession of my big book of the sonatas in score form after listening to Vol.VII, I somehow felt my attention wasn’t initially being held in quite the rapt fashion it had by that penultimate disc in this series. This being a first impression, I quite soon decided that an alternative perspective was needed, and I did some comparison with Emil Gilels’ 1985 recording of the Sonatas Nos. 30 & 31 on DG, the one rather portentously marked ‘Seine letzten aufnamen’ 419 174-2. Despite or maybe even because of this terminal labelling, I’ve always found this recording to be rather poetic and luminous, and it does seem that Gilels somehow reaches that much deeper into the soul of the music in the Sonata Op.109 than Schiff. While I admire Schiff for refusing to impose artificial ‘interpretation’ on the music, there is something about these last sonatas which demands some extra intensity of expression, some inner wellspring of emotion, which Schiff almost, but not always seems able to find. Everything is very fine, and his third movement of the Sonata Op.109 is most certainly Gesangvoll, but I would argue that the innigster Empfindung appears to have been left somewhere else.

With the Sonata Op. 110 we enter a different world, and Schiff seems to find more form. The little staccato touches in those broken chords a short way into the first movement are beautifully observed, the left hand countermelodies perfectly weighted. We seem to hear Beethoven ruminating and reminiscing, and that improvisatory quality I enjoyed so much in the earlier recordings is reinstated. The same goes for the Adagio recitative which opens the last movement of this sonata. Time seems to stand still, even when the repeated sixteenth notes start up. Shame about the out of tune high A-flat, less noticeable earlier, but a bit of a sore thumb in bar 15. The Fuga brings me straight back to what I love about Schiff in his Bach recordings: that gentle evenness of touch and the singing style with which he is able to bring out the significant themes. The only time I’ve ever been marginally bothered by Schiff’s expressively ‘late’ right hand in a melodic line is in the L’istesso tempo di Arioso, where the flow and regularity of the left hand is as a result distorted just a little too much for my taste. There’s that high A-flat like a bad tooth in bars 206 and 208, but there is no denying Schiff’s dramatic build to the final moments, all the more so from the gentleness of the opening for the final fugue.

As with the Hammerklavier, Schiff finds the dramatic and almost operatic in the first movement of the last Sonata Op.111. Hi-fi piano buffs will love the strength Schiff has in those left hand gestures, and once again, he manages to wrest utmost clarity from even the densest passages where all the pots and pans are flying around. That high A-flat has thank goodness been re-tuned. In the booklet notes, Schiff points out that, in his opinion, the instruction Adagio molto semplice e cantabile should not be read as Adagio molto, but as Adagio, molto semplice... His tempo is therefore not “unbearably slow”, but does allow plenty of space for the music to breathe and develop in with that natural, inexplicable feeling of intangible inevitability which is such a strong part of Beethoven’s genius. The impetus thus provided makes the later variations flow with energy, but also to move with the rise and fall of an expert ballroom dancer. This takes away any of the difficulty in all of those repeated rhythms, which can so easily become repetitive and static. There is a timeless quality in some passages in the later variations, and Schiff revels in these Schiff to full, breathtakingly audacious effect. This final movement certainly shows ‘a way’ in terms of the developments western music would make in later centuries, and if you have yet to listen to Beethoven in these terms then this is certainly a recording which should awaken your senses to this feeling of continuity. The remarkable uncompromising modernity of the music is laid entirely bare by Schiff. If you want to you can allow your imagination to fast forward yourself through Liszt or Chopin, maybe some impressionism, and all of this parked next to heavyweights like Busoni and Medtner, Boulez and beyond, right up to the post-modernist final C major chord, which disarms just about everything which has gone before – in this movement, but also through the entire cycle.

Any criticisms of this release are subjective and ones of degree, and in relation to the remarkable achievements in the rest of this cycle. I do have a nagging feel that something of the dramatic immediacy of the live performances is lost in this rather lonely sounding final volume, but the quality of the playing and the recording are such that collectors of the complete edition are unlikely to be disappointed. As ever, the presentation is gorgeous, with a few nice facsimiles of Beethoven’s original sketches and the usual informative and highly readable interview-style notes from Schiff. ECM have long steered away from their sometimes over-minimalist style, and these releases are no exception. Given the calligraphic/cartographic/fossil-record drawings by Jan Jedlička these are also hard to miss in your local shop. Even if you are wedded to shelf-loads of favourites in this repertoire I would still urge you to ‘go for it’ – you may find your current collection rendered more than a little redundant.

Dominy Clements



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