La Scena Musicale

Friday, May 1, 2009

Schiff Concludes Beethoven Sonata Cycle in San Francisco

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

I first met András Schiff in1984, when he appeared as guest artist with the CJRT Orchestra in Toronto, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It was a joy for me to collaborate with such a gifted young musician. He had all the musical skills imaginable, but he had more. He was curious about everything, and each performance was a voyage of discovery. He later did me the honor of attending my performance of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony (May, 1986) at Roy Thomson Hall, and returned the following season to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (March 22, 1987), again with the CJRT Orchestra.

Many years have passed since our first meeting, and András Schiff has long since been recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation. He has been highly praised for his Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Beethoven; one of his current projects is performing all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order in major cities around the world. I caught up with him for the last three sonatas in a recital at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on April 5. It was an unforgettable experience.

In an interview about Beethoven's last three sonatas, Schiff describes them as “a splendid combination of order and freedom,” and that is exactly how he played them. Each marking in the score was carefully observed but not in a dry, scholarly way. Every bar had the feeling of improvisation. In fact, Schiff so completely inhabited the spirit of the music that at times I had the sense that Beethoven himself was improvising on his own melodic and rhythmic ideas. This is a fanciful idea to be sure, but the point is that Schiff is able to lift this music off the page and make it sing and dance in wholly convincing ways.

Together with the discipline and freedom of his playing, Schiff brings to bear a remarkable understanding of how this music should sound. There are many young keyboard lions at work today who can play fast and loud; few of them can approach Schiff in his ability to generate intensity without banging.

The popular image of Beethoven as angry and unpredictable has some basis in fact and some of that unbridled energy is occasionally expressed in his music. The first movement of Op. 111 is certainly forceful and impassioned; Beethoven even marks the episode Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Some pianists approach such passages with something approaching violence. But while the emotion is real and personal, it is expressed within the most meticulously disciplined music ever composed. The supreme achievement of Schiff’s Beethoven is to balance the wide range of emotion with the intellectual complexities.

Schiff has thought deeply about this music for a very long time, and about how best to present it on a concert program. Not only did he play the sonatas in chronological sequence; he played the last three without intermission. Furthermore, he never left the stage during the course of the concert.

The idea conveyed by this presentation format was that we should think of these three sonatas, not as movements of the same large work, but as a triptych. They were composed as a group between 1820 and 1822, and while they are thematically independent, they share a common approach to musical problem-solving and exploration. Beethoven’s last major work for piano solo was still to come – the massive Diabelli Variations – but as a group, these sonatas represent Beethoven’s last word in composing for piano in the sonata form tradition of Mozart and Haydn.

The first sonata in the group – Op. 109 in E major – is an ideal point of departure. It opens quietly and with music which seems easygoing and uneventful. This is Beethoven musing at the keyboard - vamping, as it were - getting the fingers warmed up while he organizes his thoughts. Schiff caught just the right improvisatory feeling in these languid opening bars and in the stop-start music which follows. A wake-up call comes in the quick and stormy minor-key scherzo, but the heart of the matter is in the last movement; a theme and variations. The theme itself is one of Beethoven’s most heartfelt utterances, and Schiff played it with simplicity and sensitivity. Variation II recalls the dreamy opening of the first movement, but the variations gradually become more complex in their figuration. In the sixth and last variation, Beethoven builds a remarkable aural texture combining thirty-second note figuration with continuous trills, often in both hands simultaneously. This was something completely new in music, and Beethoven’s listeners must have been astonished. Schiff built this movement with extraordinary control and clarity.

The Sonata Op. 110, in A flat major, is emotionally more profound than its predecessor, especially in the Adagio section, but it is also a technical marvel. For me, it all comes together in the two fugal sections interrupted by a deeply moving reprise of the Arioso dolente. The slow sections are heartbreaking, but so too in a different way are the climactic moments in the fugal sections. Joy through tears, we might say. Schiff’s performance was as fine as I have ever heard, or expect to hear.

There is more turmoil and heartbreak in Op. 111. Here again, the subtlety and beauty of Schiff’s playing in the Arietta perfectly revealed the profound emotion in the music. In the last movement, as in Op. 109, Beethoven again uses the device of continuous trills to extraordinary effect, and Schiff’s playing was magical. Listeners who want to hear a sense of struggle in late Beethoven would have been disappointed. Schiff makes it sound easy. But make no mistake, this is some of the most difficult piano music ever written. Schiff’s technical mastery is truly amazing. More importantly, it is only through this technical proficiency that we get to appreciate Beethoven’s music as a unique amalgam of form, feeling and beauty.

After the concert, scores of listeners lined up in the lobby at Davies Symphony Hall to have Schiff sign copies of his recordings. I suspect that these fortunate music-lovers will treasure their personalized mementos for years to come.

András Schiff has recorded all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Volume VIII, recorded in Germany in 2007, contains the last three sonatas (ECM Records ECM 1949).

Photo by Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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