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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas Vol. 2
Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor Op.10 No.1 (1795-7) [17:56]
Piano Sonata No.6 in F major Op.10 No.2 (1796-7) [16:43]
Piano Sonata No.7 in D major Op.10 No.3 (1797-8) [21:30]
Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor Op.13 Pathétique (1797-8) [19:48]
András Schiff (piano)
rec. live, Tonhalle Zürich, 28 Nov 2004
ECM NEW SERIES 1942 476 3100 [76:52]


This is volume 2 of András Schiff’s chronological traversal of the Beethoven piano sonatas. I didn’t catch volume 1, which garnered many positive reviews, but I have to confess to finding some frustrating aspects to this latest disc.

As the booklet interview with the pianist makes abundantly clear, Schiff has waited many years to commit his cycle to disc, as a result thinking long and hard about his interpretations. There’s no lack of quality pianism on display here, but I do find a number of frustrating decisions regarding phrasing and rubato. Examples litter all the performances, things that might be regarded as illuminating insights in concert on disc often come over as irritations. The opening ‘Mannheim rocket’ flourish of the C minor certainly grabs the attention as it should, but Schiff then makes a meal of the bridge passage and second subject, pulling around the melody and emphasising bass notes unnecessarily. He also speeds up during the upward staccato scales at 1:05, which may be to do with ‘live’ adrenalin but distorts the line. The lovely slow movement, a real ‘song without words’, is most definitely adagio molto, but the ‘outburst’, as Schiff refers to the downwards arpeggio at bar 17, emerges as rather laboured, with none of the surprise that, say, Richard Goode brings to it. The tiny F major sonata is on the whole a success, its Haydn-esque cheek and humour intact, though Schiff still makes rather a meal of the little allegretto middle movement.

The biggest and boldest sonata of Op.10 is the D major and this is largely enjoyable. As throughout this recital Schiff observes all repeats, even some unnecessary second half repeats, and in this sonata indulges more than most in his Baroque habit of embellishing  and introducing ornamentation second time round. He even alters the opening octave scale that starts piano and ends with a sforzando, making the second time repeat end, for some unaccountable reason, with a piano climax. He also ignores Tovey’s advice that the appoggiaturas at bar 53 should be played as four quavers rather than a grace note and two quavers; the first time I’ve heard it done this way. I suppose he’s putting into practice what he calls ‘the element of surprise’ that permeates these scores, but it is a fine line between illumination and mannerism.

In many respects the most successful performance is the Pathétique. He voices the famous opening Grave chords very musically and builds the tension beautifully to the allegro. Some listeners, myself included, may raise an eyebrow at his decision to repeat the introduction as well as the exposition, implying that the opening is the first main theme. This is something such famous predecessors as Charles Rosen and Rudolf Serkin apparently adhered to, but it’s strange to hear it in practice. The slow movement also makes one listen afresh, particularly the slow movement’s middle section, where Schiff phrases the repeated triplet chords as staccato rather than the usual smoother legato.

Schiff is apparently using two pianos for the whole cycle, a brighter Bösendorfer for the earlier sonatas and a richer Steinway for the later, bigger sonatas. Even by his standards, his Bösendorfer is voiced on the hard side, with an almost aggressive top end, something the close recording only emphasises. Among the masses of competition, I was reminded of Stephen Kovacevich’s EMI recording of Op.10, but that’s more to do with Kovacevich’s brittle and forceful tone than the piano. I’ve tended to stick by Richard Goode, who is coupled identically and is a model of musicianly good taste without a hint of the prosaic. Jenö Jandó’s glittering fingerwork is also to be admired on Naxos, a superb budget cycle. Schiff is too good an artist to ignore, but I would strongly advise buyers to try and sample here. You may respond more positively than I did, but this is a full price disc with loads of budget and mid-price rivals.

Tony Haywood


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