András Schiff Beethoven

Piano Sonatas:
G, Op.31/1
D minor, Op.31/2 (Tempest)
E flat, Op.31/3
C, Op.53 (Waldstein)

András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne

Reviewed: 7 December, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Andras Schiff continued his Beethoven sonata cycle with wonderful performances of the Opus 31 sonatas. The opening Allegro vivace of the G major, surely one of Beethoven’s wittiest and cheerful sonatas, was tasteful and light-hearted and led into a delightfully whimsical Adagio grazioso. The finale again exhibited great levity, with subtle voicing and an ending that evoked a moment of merriment from the appreciative audience.

The Tempest, the best known sonata of the triptych, was again played wonderfully, although while the opening movement was mysterious and intriguing its outbursts lacked the explosive power that one feels raged in Beethoven. The Adagio was lyrical, simple and tasteful and Schiff’s control was sublime, and in the Allegretto finale some of the rubato was excessive and interrupted the movement’s perpetuum mobile.

The E flat sonata was impeccable, its lyricism, wit and phrasing that can only be the result of the most exceptional talent and artistry. The scherzo in particular was a wonderful display of refined technique, humour and playfulness, and the concluding Presto con fuoco was a magnificent gallop that drew a deserved outburst of appreciation. And an outburst of Richard Griffith proportions would not have been amiss from Schiff to the idiot who let their mobile phone ring continuously throughout the last two movements!

Schiff used two pianos: a Bösendorfer for the Opus 31 sonatas and, after the interval, a Steinway for the Waldstein. A subtle alteration of the soundworld one inhabits can stimulate the imagination and help define the uniqueness of a piece. Whether or not the less complex sounds produced by a Steinway is more suited to the Waldstein is a moot point. It is, perhaps, an idiosyncrasy that only an artist of Schiff’s integrity and standing could get away with without accusations of preciousness.

Nevertheless the Waldstein was magnificent; a combination of inspired music in the hands of a great interpreter. Never crass or overly experimental, but retaining the essential degree of spontaneity a live performance needs, and which helps to distinguish it from the many flawless but sterile recordings on the market, Schiff’s touch in the Adagio molto, was hypnotic, and his legato playing elsewhere was fabulously refined. The finale (if not quite as fleet as it could have been) wrapped up an inspiring evening.

Or nearly wrapped up the evening. Inappropriate as an encore was, Schiff explained that he felt musicologists would appreciate hearing the original second movement of the Waldstein. So it was back to the Bösendorfer (now sitting behind the Steinway, and with its sound projection slightly impaired by the lid of the former), but the performance was flawless. If you can get tickets to any of Schiff’s remaining Wigmore Beethoven concerts…

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