András Schiff Beethoven

Beethoven
Sonata in A flat, Op.26
Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1 (Quasi una fantasia)
Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Moonlight)
Sonata in D, Op.28 (Pastoral)

András Schiff (piano)


Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 4 May, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Originality in style, as my college tutor told me in my first term, is the concealed route to originality in content. Within classical music, where, after all, such originality of style can only be expressed through the most faithful authenticity, there are two routes. One way is Grigory Sokolov’s: a preternatural understanding of the repertoire he plays which gives his performances a magical freshness. The other is András Schiff’s: to be so steeped, to study so deeply the repertoire he plays, that an infinite network of allusion and an infinite depth of familiarity colours every note.

Schiff is Austro-Hungarian to the core: extreme refinement of tone – for which he is to be congratulated – intuitive awareness of structure and rhythm, and a classical balance and restraint. This recital, the first half in particular, seemed to be over in a flash, a plus-point when familiarity with the repertoire can make a humdrum interpretation drag. There is no simple answer as to whether to play repeats in classical sonatas (the exposition of Schubert’s B flat, D960, is an extreme example) but here, in the finales of Opuses 26 and 27/2, their absence accentuated a sense of a fleeting visit to Beethoven’s world.

For Schiff, depth of knowledge brings clarity, both in concept and execution. The A flat Sonata began with expertly poised Variations, the central funeral march was neither too slow nor too pompous, and the finale was measured, so that it did not seem a trite finger-exercise. The first of the Opus 27 sonatas was likewise beautifully integrated. This sonata can often seem eccentric, oddly constructed. But Schiff led us on a perfectly judged guided tour, from the discursive opening, through the storm-in-a-teacup scherzo, to the muted celebration of the finale.

The ‘Moonlight’, as explained in detail in Schiff’s pre-concert lecture, should be seen in a Beethovenian, not a Romanticised context. This most hackneyed of all piano works was given a rapid and heavily pedalled (according to the markings) first movement, and with broader than usual tempos in both the minuet and finale. This might be considered wilful, but within the context of the other sonatas played at this recital, and apart from some loss of control in virtuoso passages, it was genuinely satisfying. It was an interpretation reminiscent of Wilhelm Kempff: flowing and without mannerism. Kempff tended to play slow movements faster than the ‘norm’ and fast movements slower. He was the most classical of all Beethoven interpreters; it can only be a compliment to speak of Schiff in the same breath.

That said, the ‘Pastoral’ was the least enjoyable of the sonatas, although still marvellously idiomatic and musical. Yes, he did follow through the interpretation he described in the programme notes – that it should be an essential positive conclusion, following a Schubert-like “numbness” at the conclusion of the slow movement, although the finale lacked excitement and would have benefited from a slightly faster tempo (though I have a dim recollection of Tovey counselling against too fast a coda). The performance was also a little too splashy in terms of wrong notes, although the scherzo was beautifully shaped. Schubert’s Hungarian Melody was an appropriate encore.

I have been Laodicean as regards Schiff’s recorded cycles of Mozart and Beethoven concertos, Schubert sonatas, and Bach keyboard music, regarding them as worthy if lacking that last edge of excitement and distinction. The steely brilliance of Pollini, the glorious spontaneity of Argerich or the instinctive profundity of Solomon offers more. Yet, when I have heard Schiff live, he has been superlatively pleasurable, both musically and technically.

Either Schiff rises to the challenge of concert performance (his more recent ECM recordings are live), or he is, indeed, maturing into greatness as an artist (he is only 52). One can only anticipate eagerly his interpretations of the middle and late Beethoven sonatas.

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