Written by: Ying Chang
Fidelity is the key to András Schiff’s approach to Beethoven.He is at pains, as he explained in his lecture-recital opening his Beethoven sonata-cycle at the Wigmore Hall, to closely observe dynamic markings, tempo indications and so on, as well as to convey as authentically as possible, Beethoven’s own spirit.
As Schiff explained, painstakingly – in some cases, these goals are ideals: the unreliability of witnesses, the limitations of our knowledge and the different characteristics of reproducing Beethoven on a modern instrument mean that, sometimes, the best-intentioned performer is still guessing.
Schiff’s lecture was centred on an analysis of the four sonatas he was about to play in the next day’s recital, the three belonging to Op.2 and the E flat, Op.7. It is clear, from these works that much that is germane to the whole of Beethoven’s output was extrapolated then. In an illuminating talk, we heard about Beethoven’s uneasy relationship to his teacher Haydn, his wish to express a comprehensive range of emotions and approaches in his Op.2 sonatas, as if to set out his stall, and Schiff shared many observations about Beethoven’s piano music, specific and general, familiar and not. Espressivo is often taken to imply a slightly slower tempo – Schiff agrees – and the slow movement of Op.2/2 was clearly borrowed by Brahms for the opening of the slow movement in his Sonata for cello and piano, Op. 99, which was made obvious in illustration.
This was, therefore, an extended form of programme note, and yet something that allowed us much more – in terms of Schiff’s insights into Beethoven. Perhaps we learned little that was new; but it was reassuring to be reminded, and greatly enjoyable to be so impressed by the thought and commitment that goes into Schiff’s interpretations of Beethoven.
As with all lectures by distinguished people (not ’celebrity’!), we wanted as an audience to be told personal anecdotes of the great and good. To hear that Schiff associates the melody of Op.7’s slow movement with the phrase ’Ich liebe dich’ and Beethoven’s possible feelings to the sonata’s dedicatee, or to learn the trials that Maurizio Pollini underwent in trying to lecture about Schoenberg to Italian factory workers – these were the moments that made the afternoon a rare and refined form of entertainment.
Finally, it should not be noted that András Schiff gave his services without payment, and that box-office sales were treated as a donation to the Wigmore Hall’s refurbishment project.