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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas: Vol.VII
Sonata No.27 in E minor Op.90 (1814) [13:29]
Sonata No.28 in A major Op.101 (1815-17) [20:50] 
Sonata No.29 in B-flat major Op.106 ‘Hammerklavier’ (1817-18) [42:08]
András Schiff (piano)
rec. live, 21 May 2006, Tonhalle Zürich
ECM NEW SERIES 1948 4766189
Experience Classicsonline

Arriving at the penultimate recital in András Schiff’s chronological recordings of the complete solo piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, and the chances are you will have already ‘had a go’ with one or other of the previous volumes, or at least have considered whether or not you are currently interested in exploring this particular series based on reviews or the contents of your no doubt already overstocked shelves.

Finding myself more than usually daunted by the idea of reviewing these particular recordings of the later Beethoven sonatas, I first had to ask myself ‘why?’ My initial reason has to be that, being likely to come out with some rapturously positive descriptions and statements on the subject, my basis for such conclusions were always going to be founded on a good deal less comparative experience than many of my fine colleagues, and quite possibly many of you good readers. Not having lived and breathed dozens of illustrious recordings – I’ve ‘had’ no more than three complete sets and can only add a few supplementary live performances, I more or less decided to ditch my usual references and work with the original text. Equipped with a bulky urtext edition of the Klaviersonaten, Band II, I’ve been having a go at unravelling some of the magic which I feel András Schiff creates with these pieces.

The first thing to mention is that these are very much ‘live’ performances. This is not to say that there is anything much in the way of audience noise, and Schiff’s accuracy as a performer is pretty much legendary and fully validated in these recordings. My point is that, projecting into a real auditorium, the touch can appear, or just is different to someone who is performing in a studio to a set of microphones at close level. Some phrases and passages can come across as more heavily articulated, some of the upper ranges pushed harder than you might expect or be used to. The sense of contrast and drama is often heightened in this way, with breathless, almost silent passages making the listener focus and tune their hearing as if adjusting to the ethereal strum of a clavichord, and then being blown away by the full force of a modern concert grand. This we all experience from close too, our ears finding themselves positioned as microphones, rather than at the safer distance of the auditorium. For me, it is this very sense of confrontation with this ‘reality’ of a performance which makes these recordings extra special. I’ve often worked as a page turner, and know what power a great pianist can generate with a concert grand from close quarters – even when my attention is more fixed on standing at the right moment, not turning two pages at once, and whether my tie is preventing the player from reading a vital F#. Mr. Schiff does not need a page turner in this repertoire, I hasten to add.

Almost from the start of the remarkable Sonata No.27 op.90, Schiff lays his expressive fingerprint on the score. The essential compactness and reserved drama of those opening chords promise a great deal of high-grade content, but my ear was first drawn to the almost Eroll Garner-like lateness of the right hand in that limpid second section in the theme. This is a characteristic of Schiff’s playing in these melodic sections, and almost, almost extends to micro-spreading of the functionally melodic chords in the right hand of the first movement of Op.101. Like well considered vibrato his application of such techniques is however judicious, and my pointing this out is in no way to been seen as a negative comment.

Schiff is alive to the fact that many of the most striking moments in this music are to be found in the quietest passages. The transition which starts at 2:44 in the first movement of Op.90 and runs on until 3:00 has a Ligeti like feel; exploring three or four notes in an extraordinarily modern way. These explorations of sonority and texture with a minimum of means is something to which Schiff seems particularly attuned, and there are dozens of similar moments which he gives the kind of improvisatory quality which you might in isolation associate more with someone like Keith Jarrett. Again, this is not to imply a break with idiom or any kind of bizarre eccentricity which may immediately impress and subsequently grate on the ear. These are all part of the exquisite symbiosis which Schiff seems to generate between himself and a composer no longer with us, but not so very long dead for all that.

The luminous lyricism of Op.90 is impregnated with generosity of warmth and expression here, but Schiff never over-indulges us with artificial rubato or heart-on-sleeve romanticism. These are pieces whose toes still balance on the shoulders of Haydn and other giants, and Schiff performs that tricky balancing act of giving us the revolutionary and the romantic spirit of Beethoven without tarring the music with sticky sentimentality. The opening of the Sonata No.28 Op.101 appears almost as an extension of Op.90, the song-like shapes of its opening theme a surprising continuity two years on from its predecessor. More radical is the second movement, whose rugged rhythmic interruptions all too often result in a lumpy, non- Marschmässig forward impetus. Schiff gives us maximum contrast, finding a rare beauty in the sustained pedal marking of the quiet central moment in bars 30-34, but playing Beethoven’s gruff musical arguments as written, which is powerfully peculiar enough. The una corda instruction for the opening of the third movement is like the effect of muted strings. I have known players who refuse to follow this instruction, feeling the sound too muffled, but Beethoven knew what he was about, and he and Schiff introduce us to a mysterious and enigmatic world from which the reprise of the opening theme can emerge like a ghostly reminder of a lost love. The joyous 2/4 Presto of the finale, with all its dancing counterpoint, comes as more of a surprise on the strength of the transition which precedes it, but the often dark sonorities which in which Beethoven keeps the registers of the piano prevents much in the way of witty sparkle. The deep dissonances in the left hand at 4:51 come less as a shock and more as a logical progression, but Schiff holds nothing back, weighing in with full impact – the fright of such fury softened by the gentle dynamics of most of the final pages.

So, to the Hammerklavier, which rightly holds a position as the highlight; or focus of most difficulties in any complete set of Beethoven’s Sonatas. Schiff observes the newfangled metronome markings given by Beethoven, which in their own right provide enough impetus to prevent needless wallowing in the huge structures of the piece. Schiff provides plenty of clues and pointers in his booklet comments, as usual for this series presented in the form of an interview with Martin Meyer. He notes intervallic relationships, both the forward and backward-looking aspects of the music – as far back as Bach with the fugues, as well as a reference to something like a ‘czardas’ in the 2/4 Presto which follows the 3/4 main theme and first development section of the Scherzo second movement, as well as forward to the final Sonata Op.111.

This piece is mind-mangling enough to follow as a listener let alone to learn from memory as a player, and I’ve always found it a hard nut to crack. I’d love to be able to tell you how he does it, but András Schiff somehow manages to crack the nut for me at every level. I think part of the answer is, as with the other sonatas, the approach to sonority. Many pianists see the vast architecture of the music as paramount, and the attempt to express this in the nature of a symphony can result in the creation of an impenetrable monument which one can only admire at a distance. Schiff opens the doors of the music, reaching out by placing true emphasis on the expressive and the beautiful as well as the enigmatic, and the overt and sometimes harshly dramatic elements. Schiff himself doesn’t make this as an observation, but to my ears the music is presented here more in the way of an opera rather than a symphony. There is a great deal of complicated narration and the memory is always going to be challenged to make sense of vast tracts of ‘difficult’ music in the Hammerklavier. Schiff’s characterisation of certain aspects of the piece provide extra points of reference however. If you can hear the ‘voices’ of each character returning and growing, or can visualise gestures and scenarios in the drama, then the seeds of appreciation of this incredible piece may well be planted or enhanced. There is of course a great deal of abstraction in the music, but Schiff knows where to find wit and points of contact where Beethoven relaxes for a moment. We can gasp at his technical prowess in those ‘unplayable’ trills in the finale, but Schiff doesn’t make the music sound easy in any superficial way. His observation of sforzando accents and dynamics bring out every conceivable aspect of Beethoven’s almost deranged imagination. This is a performance which is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, which is the way it should be.

Just to ensure that I wasn’t running away with my own imagination, I had a re-listen to the young Daniel Barenboim’s 1970 EMI recording. This too is a remarkable achievement, but I don’t hear the same clarity of voicing in that final fugue. Schiff might be accused of over-emphasising some markings, but often with so much else going on at the same that over-emphasis is the equivalent of effective stage direction: the action and message otherwise running the risk of becoming lost. Elsewhere in the work I prefer Schiff’s pedalling and articulation in the more full-frontal passages, characterised in that opening fanfare which Barenboim spouts like a grand erupting fountain, where Schiff’s opening is very much more the rise of the curtain on a very big stage. I find the connectedness of Schiff’s drama with the surrounding passages more convincing as well. Barenboim is slower than the metronome mark in the first movement, and gives the impression more of stopping and starting rather than flowing in a single tempo with subtle rubati.

With ECM’s superlative piano recording, this has to become a top recommendation for these pieces whatever the competition. Beethoven’s late piano sonatas present their own magic and problems, and in setting the relatively benign Op.90 and lyrically appealing Op.101 sonatas against what Schiff agrees is “probably the hardest work in the whole repertoire of the piano”, both player and record label have a winning programme which can stand on its own, beyond the context of the entire set. The combination of absolute technical mastery and the spirit of improvisational exploration make these performances pulsate with vibrancy both latent and instant. If your tastes are anything like mine, your spirit will remain restless until you do have the entire set however – especially after hearing this.

Dominy Clements





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