Ludwig van Beethoven
The Piano Sonatas: Volume V
András Schiff piano
Recorded December 2005, Zürich Tonhalle
According to Schiff, these sonatas, culled from Beethoven’s so-called “Middle Period,” challenge the heroism so often ascribed to his concurrent works (e.g., the “Eroica” Symphony). Rather, this is an introverted heroism honed in the artifice of its own self-conscious desire. Violence is shown to be futile, as bendable as the will of its practitioners.
Sonata No. 16 G major op. 31/1
Schiff characterizes this as Beethoven’s “wittiest” sonata. It also marks a shift from the classical style and indicates a composer desperate to forge his own path. At times parodic, this sonata leaves the listener with a sense of renewed vibrancy and proves that we need not always take ourselves so seriously to create animated art.
Sonata No. 17 d minor op. 31/2 “The Tempest”
Despite the dramatic implications of its subtitle (which was, again, not his own), it is this sonata’s gorgeous Adagio that really stands out for me, and partners well with the closing Allegretto’s stunning sense of development and reprise. The “Tempest”-Sonata is, like its titular event, more than just turmoil. It is the sum of its parts, from the subtle and unseen to the blatantly antagonistic.
Sonata No. 18 E-flat major op. 31/3 “The Hunt”
This sonata is often noted for its jocularity, but Schiff manages peel back its veneer to expose a deeper psychology at work within. Beethoven forgoes the usual ternary form in the Scherzo, thereby shading its sprightly mood with a hint of fortitude. A graver Menuetto and determined Presto bring necessary closure to its titular pastime.
Sonata No. 21 C major op. 53 (1803/4) “Waldstein”
The notorious “Waldstein”-Sonata is as economical at its center as it is expansive and epic at its edges. It is beyond programmatic, second in scope perhaps only to the “Hammerklavier”-Sonata. This is a rollicking and sensory ride through pastures and mountains, rivers and snowdrifts, and all with the concentrated clarity of a composer hermetically devoted to his private niche. The central Adagio is an exercise in mounting tension, whereas the final Allegretto sparkles with the effervescence of a natural spring. A particularly formidable section features a floating trill with the right hand as the left jumps quickly through its own set of hoops, all the while sandwiching a series of punctuating notes in the middle register. This precedes a long series of hills and valleys that boils into a bittersweet triumph, undercut as it is by the prospect of separation. The “Waldstein”-Sonata is as kaleidoscopic a sonata as can be, revealing new perspectives with every revolution. The virtuosity here is a wonder, all the more so for Schiff’s ability to shake off any unnecessary romanticism and play with unwavering consistency. In doing so, he allows the inherent variety of the piece to come through with a surprising amount of transparency.
Andante favori F major WoO 57 (1803)
This was the original second movement of the “Waldstein”-Sonata. After being criticized for its excessive length, it was (after much reflection on Beethoven’s part) switched out for the more succinct movement we have today. This little orphan survived well enough to earn the title of “Favored Andante.” It is almost like a sonata in its own right, inverted and miniaturized as if for a shelf of curios.