Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Vol. I – Schiff (ECM New Series 1940/41)


Ludwig van Beethoven
The Piano Sonatas: Volume I

András Schiff piano
Recorded March 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

Renowned conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) famously offered the following advice to his fellow ivory-ticklers: “Bach is the Old Testament and Beethoven the New Testament of music.” Whatever we may think of such pronouncements in our postmodern comfort zones, the influence of either composer cannot be denied in the overall development of classical music. Which brings us to one of ECM’s most ambitious projects. Hungarian pianist András Schiff—previously known for his spirited renderings of Schubert, Mozart, and Bach—simply glows here in these revelatory performances of the entire cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, meeting each challenge along the way with enviable aptitude. Totaling 32 in number, these sonatas remain the heart of the iconic composer’s entire output, each its own world of sound and climate.

Kernels of what would later come to be construed as Beethoven’s genius are easily gleaned from these first offerings. And indeed they are groundbreaking in the most pragmatic sense of the word in that they quite simply broke new ground for the fledgling composer. Conversely, Schiff has waited for decades to ease into this material. This tactic has paid off in immeasurable dividends that reward our listening most profitably. Schiff is adamant about following the interpretive clues Beethoven has left behind in his scores, taking to heart (while also setting aside) the elisions and additions of his predecessors. He greets each sonata as a new friend, welcoming whatever idiosyncrasies might walk through the door. Although these sonatas are hot on the heels of Mozart, in Schiff’s estimation Beethoven is prose to Mozart’s poetry. If Beethoven is synonymous with drama, then this is the perfect curtain-raiser to Schiff’s epic endeavor.

Sonata No. 1 f minor op. 2/1 (1793-5)
Shades of Haydn (to whom all of op. 2 is dedicated) abound, but arrive at a series of distinct solutions both open-ended and alternatively solved. Schiff manages to draw out a dramatic exploration of themes with limited means. Dynamic control in the Menuetto is strikingly effective here, while the Prestissimo is a thrilling conclusion to this earliest sonata and already speaks of a turgid energy dying for a way out. The final bars are filled with a lush restraint that erupts into the ultimate downward trill.

Sonata No. 2 A major op. 2/2 (1794-5)
A more playful, even humorous mood dominates the op. 2/2. One gets a sense of freedom within bounds, like a child who is limited only by imagination in terms of what can be seen and experienced while under the constant supervision of adults and other authority figures who have safety in mind but rules in hand. This sonata is a grand experiment in movement. It runs, trips, falls, picks itself up again in its repeated attempts to regain locomotive control. This seems to me one of the most difficult of the 32 sonatas to play, if only because of the demand for sustained focus and sheer emotive energy that plows its whimsical façade. The Allegro is a grandiose series of textures all describing the same playroom and recasts us as the parents watching over the child we once were. On the one hand we are joyful toward the innocent display; on the other we mourn the loss of our interest in such trivial things. This isn’t the philosophical Beethoven that most uphold and adore, but no less a contemplative one unafraid to work through his own indecision in the open forum of our scrutiny. The Scherzo sparkles here with jewel-like brilliance before tossing us like a discarded doll into a satisfying conclusion.

Sonata No. 3 C major op. 2/3 (1794-5)
A verdant and dramatic Allegro starts things off eccentrically, with the slightest hint of Händel to keep our ears in check. Superbly controlled runs and arpeggios make this a joyful listening experience overall. It is the musical equivalent of a period of rest that precedes the return leg of a long journey: we relive the joys of our destination while yearning for those of home.

Sonata No.4 E-flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
This sonata offers such a wide variety colors that one wonders where the young Beethoven found the time to pluck them from the proverbial air. Of the early works, this more than any other seems to showcase Beethoven’s unique “posturing” as one looking back over a much longer life. Already he displays a grand affinity for, and subtle reinvention of, the sonata form. We end on a curiously somber note, collapsing to the ground after a futile attempt at escape.

Schiff plays as if every finger were its own pianist, so clear are his articulations. Every note has room to breathe and to express itself in even the densest passages. This music demands our attention not because it is Beethoven’s, but because it is ours.

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