Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Vol. II – Schiff (ECM New Series 1942)


Ludwig van Beethoven
The Piano Sonatas: Volume II

András Schiff piano
Recorded November 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

“Unlike with Mozart and Schubert, there are no repeated gestures in Beethoven: everything unfolds and is developed in a new aspect.” So says András Schiff of the difficulties of approaching this cycle as a whole. Of course, such progressive demands present formidable challenges to the Beethoven interpreter, who must play as if caught in the immediacy of every musical gesture. “Drama” is a kneejerk watchword for Volume II of Schiff’s Beethoven series, but it is not without merit as a foundation for the less hackneyed architecture that Schiff develops. This modest collection is full of surprises and reflects the superior dedication behind its execution.

Sonata No. 5 c minor op. 10/1 (?1795-7)
Like many of Beethoven’s early sonatas, op. 10/1 invariably puts me in mind of running. If any blanket statement can be made about these seminal works, it is that they are always moving. Whether slowly, briskly, or at a horse’s gallop, one senses that the music is always going somewhere, even if the destination isn’t always clear (even to Beethoven himself). Therefore, it is perhaps up to the performer to determine that destination and to commit to the path that leads us there. The op. 10/1 reveals formative intimations of Beethoven’s “concertistic” leanings. Rather than exhibiting the embryonic characteristics of a composer in his mid-twenties, the forms herein act like fully realized beings that have each thought deeply before speaking.

Sonata No. 6 F major op. 10/2 (1796-7)
The opening Allegro is a stunning confluence of form and melodic drive. Schiff’s playing here veritably jumps off the page like a script dying to be orated before an enraptured audience. Arpeggios sing with grace and dutiful restraint as the right hand dominates with subtler pleasures. A contemplative Allegretto leads into a swinging Presto with all the verve of one who believes passionately in the value of darkness. Not that this is a morbid piece, but only that its nooks and crannies are deep enough to inscribe loaded variations onto an otherwise dainty surface. This is truly a standout in the entire cycle, and what Schiff does with it is miraculous.

Sonata No. 7 D major op. 10/3 (1797-8)
A bit statelier in feel, nevertheless this sonata rushes forth with its own powerful energy. This is generally one of the quieter sonatas, as it embodies a chamber-like sensibility, not so much sweeping as it is intimate in its grandeur. And even though it may not hit you over the head with its style, it packs a delayed punch in its ability to seep undetected under the skin, lacing our systems with subdued petulance.

Sonata No. 8 c minor op. 13 “Pathétique”
Though often seen as one of Beethoven’s more “symphonic” sonatas, I prefer to see the op. 13 as “sympathetic.” The opening movement fights its way to a centered mode of understanding in its attempts to overshadow another’s internal pain. It is consolatory, patient, even kind. Its many spontaneous shifts are never instigated without thought and careful reassessment of their own devices. The recapitulating motif is comforting, mellifluous in its persistence. An Adagio soon binds us with notable restraint. In doing so, it avoids falling into a trap of oversentimentality, unfolding instead with the uneasy grace of human (read: mediated) emotion. The concluding Rondo and Allegro twirl with the measured rhythm of a dancer who must leave her shoes in a dusty, shadowed corner at the end of the day, but who refuses to leave the studio without first giving her all in defiance of the wall-length mirror that stands before her.

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