András Schiff

Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, Op.90
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101
Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 24 May, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

There’s an old joke about Brahms’s music being a single, continuous stream arbitrarily divided into symphonies, string quartets, songs, etc.

Schiff’s recital – three sonatas and no interval, with a minuscule break for applause before he began the ‘Hammerklavier’ – appeared to suggest that Beethoven composed in a similar endless, undifferentiated stream. Do these three disparate, highly experimental sonatas comprise some special creative unity?

If so, why then proceed to an encore? What place does a Bach Prelude and Fugue have here? After the mighty fugal climax to the ‘Hammerklavier’, the rest should, surely, be silence. (Schiff sounded exhausted.)

These were large, robust performances, Schiff keenly aware of musical contrast and texture. The first minute of the E minor sonata displayed that. Loud, stentorian chords crashed into the atmosphere, swiftly followed by a gentler theme. The contrast was there in the music, but there was an element of calculation in the playing: the theme, delicately played, seemed nevertheless to have been interpolated by a bludgeon. Still, the contrast was resoundingly present and charged with energy. The ensuing E major rondo, “the conversation with the loved one”, intimate and lyrical, was unmemorable, however.

Schiff’s strength is the public pronouncement. The opening of his ‘Hammerklavier’ was magnificent – it called upon the living to wake up. The rest of the movement, and indeed the scherzo to follow, gave no let-up in force. This energy made sense, too: it was not the mindless rant that many lesser interpreters offer. The Allegro risoluto filled the auditorium with joyous noise and the fugue added gloriously to the great clamour. Schiff met the strength of Beethoven’s joy head on.

The Adagio sostenuto was a very public work – large and awesome, of unassailable dignity and grandeur. Schiff sculpted this mighty, long movement into a firm and sustained shape. There was no flagging or sagging as Beethoven gave his sorrowful lament of rebirth and renewal in seemingly endless sostenuto.

In several respects, Schiff struck me as an heir to Schnabel – the forceful drive, the magisterial quality, the commanding interpretation. However, I missed the imagination, grace and other-worldliness that Schnabel brought to slow movements. This Schiff could not manage.

He gave us large performances. Form was a living vitality. The playing was wildly exciting and noisy. It resembled – and I am not being quite as disparaging as I may sound – a wild evening of Hungarian dances. To this end, the march in the A major sonata was splendidly awkward and gawky.

Schiff’s red-coated battlefield did not move me, however. I missed Beethoven’s turbulent sea, swelling and subsiding in the stress of his enormous emotions and agonised mysticism.

Not quite great performances, then – though greatly preferable to many more workaday versions of these masterpieces.

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