Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Vol. VIII – Schiff (ECM New Series 1949)



Ludwig van Beethoven
The Piano Sonatas: Volume VIII

András Schiff piano
Recorded September 2007 at the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany

“Like picture restorers, we performers have to scrape off the layers of convention, have to remove the dust and dirt, in order to reproduce the work in all its original freshness.”
–A. Schiff

Clearly, the demands presented to the Beethoven interpreter are great. Not only must s/he play under the looming shadow of an enigma, but s/he must also, as Schiff says above, scrape away at the residue of scholarship, public dissemination, and imperialistic reputation. Schiff seems unable to escape the context of each sonata as he approaches it. Where he excels is in owning up to his modernity. In this hyperkinetic age one is wary to throw around words like “definitive,” though I do feel that Schiff’s interpretations have left an indelible mark on the Beethovenian pantheon. Schiff is utterly committed to the urtext: he observes every prescription laid out before him. His approach is as constellatory as the music itself. In spite of what the gushing sentiments of this and other reviews might have you believe, it seems this music can carry its own without us. It is not so much timeless as it is timely and deserves at least one undivided listen in sequence, if only to pass on its messages in all their developmental glory.

In the Sonata No. 30 E major op. 109 (1820), two compact introductory statements pave the way for an expansive and intimate third movement. The music is tear-stricken and brimming with quiet resolution. The somber mood continues with the first movement of the Sonata No. 31 A-flat major op. 110 (1821) before giving way to some merciful humor in the second. The third movement is, for all its sparse distribution of notes, a profoundly heavy lament. Although we do get some closure at the end, one senses that recovery is as ephemeral as the notes we have just heard. This sudden spurt of confidence seems a desperate slap in the face of mortality. The Sonata No. 32 c minor op. 111 (1821-22) provides a turgid conclusion to an already multifaceted collection. In two movements, Beethoven expresses a lifetime’s worth of turbulence while managing to leave with the final proud nod of one who has won a long and fruitful argument.

A note on the recordings of the Beethoven cycle: Schiff made a bold decision in performing each sonata in at least 15 cities before sitting down for the live recordings at the Zürich Tonhalle, the acoustics of which seem spun directly from the piano itself. Schiff believed that the immediacy of live performance was vital in bringing Beethoven to life on CD. The only exception is this final disc, which was recorded in the empty hall of the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany. Schiff also used three pianos: a Steinway for the more dynamic pieces and two different Bösendorfers for the lyrical. In terms of sound mixing, the left hand dominates the left channel and vice versa, thereby creating a virtual piano before one’s ears. Whatever interpretations may precede or follow Schiff’s, I am in awe of any musician who dares to take on the cycle in its entirety. I realize that everyone has his or her own preferences and caveats, but at the end of the day it is the music that speaks to our hearts, regardless of the name splashed across a jewel case spine.

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