Mats Eilertsen: Rubicon (ECM 2469)

Rubicon

Mats Eilertsen
Rubicon

Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Eirik Hegdal soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet
Thomas T Dahl guitar
Rob Waring marimba, vibraphone
Harmen Fraanje piano, Fender Rhodes
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Olavi Louhivuori drums
Recorded May 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: July 29, 2016

The result of a VossaJazz Festival commission by Trude Storheim in April of 2014, Rubicon presents bassist and longtime ECM sideman Mats Eilertsen as a leader in his own right. At its core is Eilertsen’s Skydive Trio with guitarist Thomas T Dahl and drummer Olavi Louhivuori. To that nexus he adds saxophonists Eirik Hegdal and Trygve Seim, pianist Harmen Fraanje, and vibraphonist Rob Waring for an eminently integrated atmosphere.

The album ends where others would begin: with an “Introitus” of inward proportions. This trio for bass clarinet, bass, and marimba reconfigures finality as an open door, turning the very idea of a destination in on itself until the journey becomes self-fulfilling. “Wood and Water” explores freely improvised territory with the same combination of instruments in the set’s emotional zenith.

Particular musicians lend sanctity to the unplanned. Fraanje projects his cinematic monologue “Cross the Creek,” while Dahl treads meteorically across the expanse of “BluBlue” without ever looking down. “Balky” and “Lago” highlight the reed players, building towering intimacies from base elements at one moment, while at the next slicking city streets with late-night rain.

These attentive bandmates find deepest traction when working together, for unity is the wellspring of their integrity. We find it in the opening “Canto,” a roving suite of sun and shade from which Seim and Hegdal draw out hidden voices; in “March,” which unfurls its shimmering wingspan by way of vibraphone and guitar; and in “September,” which rewrites its own grammar as it goes along. In each of these scenes, sentiments are pulled as if by horse carriage toward spontaneous horizons.

Through it all, Eilertsen is an undeniable force, bearing his lyrical ache on a pillow of total respect for creation and the opportunity to share it.

Kit Downes: Obsidian (ECM 2559)

2559 X

Kit Downes
Obsidian

Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone (on “Modern Gods”)
Recorded November 2016 at St. John, Snape, Suffolk
Union Chapel, London
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: January 19, 2018

Performed on three different organs across the UK, Obsidian chronicles the spatial and temporal travels of keyboardist Kit Downes. Were this album to be turned into a book, it would require a tooled leather cover and hand-sewn binding to do even partial justice to all the care gone into its narrative. Each instrument thus embodies its own backstory, the mechanisms of which become clear not only in the intimately engineered recording but also in the interactions catalyzed by Downes’s gestural storytelling.

That said, the floating arpeggios and leading lines of “Kings,” our first leg of this journey, actualize their images not by pen but by palette knife, treading across canvas as if it were a horizontal path turned upward in defiance of gravity. Despite this perspectival flip, however, the music feels weighted by the contrary motions of its performer, who balances forces of suggestion with spontaneous deference. One imagines a boy running over hills in search of any other destiny than the one chosen for him, yet leaving an audible path so that even the blind might find him should he ever get lost. Such feelings of liberation are only intensified in a multilayered rendition of the folksong “Black Is The Colour.”

Not all in this world of hardened lava, however, is spoken in earthly tones. In “Rings Of Saturn,” Downes awakens the pipes like an intergalactic shō, and from their arousal turns outer space into inner reality, while in “Flying Foxes” he reroutes wordless carriages of animality into every unfolding theme, as in the avian hymnody of “The Gift” (written by father Paul Downes).

“Seeing Things” practices what it preaches through a more pointillist doctrine. Its marginalia gild a scripture explored more deeply in “Modern Gods.” Here the saxophone of Tom Challenger inhales from the organ even as it exhales something back into it. With a fleeting sense of form, it scales from shadow into burning triumph.

“The Bone Gambler,” as the program’s most evocative, couldn’t be more appropriately titled. With sincerity of pitch and mood, it wraps its arms around a room so beautifully timeworn that one could almost expect Tom Waits to walk in at any moment and start rasping his soul. Through the window of that same room, we gaze out upon the waters of “Ruth’s Song For The Sea” and “Last Leviathan,” elegies both. With a sincerity that can only have resulted from years of hammering on an anvil of love, these finely wrought talismans warn of continental vagaries, offering in their place a chance to sail away in boats of our own fleshly making.

Obsidian is the musical equivalent of following behind Lucy Pevensie as she escapes her war-torn world through the wardrobe to find refuge awaiting her snow-cushioned step. Let this be your doorway into something equally salvific.

Tord Gustavsen: What was said (ECM 2465)

What was said

Tord Gustavsen
What was said

Tord Gustavsen piano, electronics, synth bass
Simin Tander voice
Jarle Vespestad drums
Recorded April 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2016

After leaving behind the phosphorescent crumbs of his era-defining trio recordings, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen returns to ECM’s forest path alongside drummer Jarle Vespestad and holding a fresher lantern lit by German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander. Gustavsen expands his palette, adding electronics and synth bass to the mix, while Tander renders her voice with lyrical and improvisational force. Taking the hymns of Gustavsen’s childhood as foundation, he and Tander enlisted the help of Afghan poet B. Hamsaaya to translate them into Pashto before balancing them with Rumi in the freer English translations of Coleman Barks. The verbal archive of Rumi-inspired American writer Kenneth Rexroth was also mined for jewels to be set in the yielding silver of the present arrangements. On that latter note, Rexroth’s “I Refuse” comes across as the album’s spiritual culmination, standing firm against the tide of history even as it imbibes itself on forgotten knowledge. Tander’s rendering thereof illustrates a life cycle of its own worth: from the pupa of suggestion to the chrysalis of accountability and finally a winged emergence of liberation.

Like fog resolving into a discernible landscape, the verses chosen for this program strip away layers of hardship to reveal the light of hope buried within. This is especially true of the Rumi selections. In “Your Grief,” Gustavsen’s melody unwraps the Sufi poet’s observational acumen as a lover would a seam of clothing, revealing not a physical but a spiritual body in which beats a heart of ephemeral loss. “What Was Said To The Rose” is a another sonic blush of whispered thoughts and corporeal singing, while “The Source Of Now” employs gentle brushwork—both literally in Vespestad’s playing and metaphorically in the sentiments—and all of it connected by an aquatic singing style.

What was seen

That the Norwegian hymns feel as integrated as they do is testament not only to the musicians but also to a shared continuity. “I See You” is thus more than an ode to our heavenly Mother and Father, but a locket of understanding that houses Tander’s voice as an earthly relic. Her subtle adlibbing is as tangible as stained glass, and equally mosaiced. The piano intro of “A Castle In Heaven” evokes that other spiritual stalwart of ECM—G. I. Gurdjieff—by clearing away ancient paths of virtue. Starting with the vigil-like awareness of “Journey Of Life” and finishing in the shaded alcove of “Sweet Melting Afterglow,” a veritable church of sound opens its pews to any and all who would bend a knee between them.

Even the album’s instrumental turns feel syntactical. Both the tender duo of Gustavsen and Vespestad that is “The Way You Play My Heart” and the playful awakening of “Rull” realize that speech is nothing without music, and vice versa. And so, what was said is also what was sung, pushed like air through lungs, throat, and mouth to turn the very ether into writing paper and our ears into eyes reading every word as if it were our last.

Eggersman/Borger/Eick: Unifony

Unifony

“Unifony” is a word invented to describe the audible tesseract forged by producer Minco Eggersman, engineer Theodoor Borger, and trumpeter Mathias Eick. Watering electroacoustic seeds, and from those nurturing an incidental crop, they drift between graspable melodies, ambient sound designs, and cinematic embryos. Indeed, each of their debut album’s 12 tracks is a film for which only the inner ear can serve as projector screen.

If asked to assign an overall shape to this project, one would be hard-pressed to come up with anything better than a sphere. Such is the coherence and three-dimensionality one encounters. From the first blush of “Glow,” we find each vibrational frequency churning within the confines of its own dreams as the only way of transcending them. Eick’s tone is wrapped in a human touch as only a singer’s might be, and by its gentle force of suggestion indicates the forward motion of seeking and finding something we didn’t even realize we were looking for. Here, as throughout, rhythms are never applied from without but instead emerge from within, each an unpredictable treasure, sacred and wrapped in shadow.

That same feeling of travel persists throughout “Found” and “Ghostly,” wherein narrative impulses of what’s discoverable through the body trade molecules with the spatial evocations of “Drive” and “Rock” as if the only promise worth keeping is that made by a receding horizon. “Ascend” balances the horizontal axis with a vertical one, threading an arpeggio of plucked strings through a braid of trumpet, piano, and circulations of the heart.

Yet nowhere do we understand the nature of things so clearly as in “Blur.” As individual as every soul that inhales it, this music renders space like an open-ended video game, charting maps in real time through ghost towns and ruins of lost civilizations in search of places where voices might still reside.

In that sense, Unifony is all about kindship—not only between the musicians and producers whose lives have intersected in these achingly beautiful nebulae, but also between listeners thousands of miles away, so that the mere push of a virtual PLAY button is all it takes to breathe the same air. As the name of the final track—“Tangible”—suggests, we are left with something transportable, a relic from the future through which we are given a choice: to continue wallowing in self-absorption or shed our egos in search of timeless unity. Let us all opt for the latter.

Unifony is available for purchase on Bandcamp here.

Giovanni Guidi: Avec le temps (ECM 2604)

2604 X

Giovanni Guidi
Avec le temps

Giovanni Guidi piano
Francesco Bearzatti tenor saxophone
Roberto Cecchetto guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
João Lobo drums
Recorded November 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mixed July 2018 by Manfred Eicher, Giovanni Guidi, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 22, 2019

ECM has always been a label of surprises. Every now and then, however, it reaches beyond the unexpected into something eternal. Such is the feeling of Giovanni Guidi’s Avec le temps, an album so meticulous in its attention to detail, form, and formlessness that it feels inevitable. It’s one of those dates that reveals new layers with every iteration, and in doing so proves those layers to have been always with us.

The title track is a chanson by Monaco-born Léo Ferré. As the only of the set not written by Guidi, it reflects the bandleader’s equal passions for lyricism and spontaneous invention while introducing a core trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer João Lobo. Stripped of its poetry yet replaced with a wordless other, it travels like a caterpillar born to sing this one song before it chrysalizes into something winged.

“15th of August” introduces the full quintet with which the session is concerned, treating tenor saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti and guitarist Roberto Cecchetto as necessary organs in a maturing body. As such, their spirit of unity finds clearest expression in the relatively straightforward “No Taxi.” That said, the untethered “Johnny the Liar”  and “Postludium and a Kiss” are no strangers to continuity of purpose. Throughout the latter piece, Bearzatti lurks in the creaking of an emotional door before soaring as a guardian bird overhead to gather melodic rainfall in his bell.

Morgan, as can be expected, is just so present. He daubs only where paint is needed, applying memorable arco strokes in “Caino.” This tune is moreover a prime showcase for Guidi’s boundless imagination, cascading in the final stretch with all the beauty and pain of a world drowning in divided color schemes.

“Ti Stimo” highlights guitarist Roberto Cecchetto ability to lay down a melody that resounds even when not being played, while “Tomasz” (written in memory of trumpeter and ECM stalwart Tomasz Stanko) concludes in earnest farewell. One of the most exquisite creations to grace these years in recent memory, it prays in circles until it cuts a hole in the ground large enough to fall through in search of those who have left us.

Despite the album’s title—which translates in English to “It may take time”—it takes no time at all to catch on to the beauty of what’s going on here. This will surely go down as one of the ECM’s finest of the decade. Timely and timeless.

Alexei Lubimov: Tangere (ECM New Series 2112)

2112 X

Alexei Lubimov
Tangere

Alexei Lubimov tangent piano
Recorded July 2008, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekapel Elzenveld, Antwerpen
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

For this landmark record of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), pianist Alexei Lubimov has assembled a rich conspectus. More than that, he has delved into the history of the classical keyboard and its precursors, coming up for glorious air with the rarely heard tangent piano as his tool of choice. As one of a handful of options available at the younger Bach’s fingertips, it comes alive in this unusual combination of scores and performances. The title of the program, Tangere, means “to touch,” and embodies Lubimov’s ideal as interpreter, if not also Bach’s as composer.

As noted by New York Times critic Cleveland Johnson, the tangent piano recalls the Middle Eastern santur, and indeed operates by a kindred principle of hammer and string. Like András Schiff’s ECM New Series recording of Franz Schubert on a Viennese fortepiano, its rewards far outweigh the time it may take to accustom oneself to its timbre.

Between 1779 and 1787, C.P.E. Bach produced six collections of fantasies, sonatas, and rondos “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for connoisseurs and dilettantes), and it is from all but the second and fourth of these that Lubimov has plucked the juiciest fruits. The Freye Fantasie (Wq 67) that opens the program is also its longest, taking listeners through 11 minutes of time travel. In addition to its mature composing and foreshadowing of the even greater piano literature waiting in the coming century, it showcases the instrument’s gamut of colors, moods, and textures. The same characterization holds true for the Sonate II (Wq 57) that follows, sandwiching between its charming outer layers an inner oasis.

Selections from the Clavierstücke verschiedener Art (Keyboard pieces of various kinds) of 1765 and Musikalisches Vielerley (Musical miscellaney) of 1770 flesh out the middle ground with shorter bursts of creative exposition. Among these pieces are the delightful solfeggi, which pack the punch of extra-strength medicine capsules.

In this context, the Sonate VI (Wq55) comes across as downright cinematic for its use of space, movement, and framing. Its central Andante is so hauntingly suited to the tangent piano that it feels born from within its strings. All of which renders the concluding Fantasie II (Wq 59/6) a vessel for any virtuosity that preceded it.

Andrew Cyrille: Lebroba (ECM 2589)

Lebroba.jpg

Andrew Cyrille
Lebroba

Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Bill Frisell guitar
Andrew Cyrille drums
Recorded July 2017 at Reservoir Studios, New York
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: November 2, 2018

When drummer Andrew Cyrille broke tension with The Declaration of Musical Independence in 2016, the universe seemed to beg for more. And so, with producer Sun Chung at the helm, he stepped into the studio again, this time retaining guitarist Bill Frisell and adding only trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to the mix. Then again, “mix” is far from the appropriate word here, as the trio unifies under the influence of processes far beyond the stirring of some proverbial pot would imply.

Among the many excitations of Lebroba is the fact that it marks the first occasion for Frisell and Smith to record together. “Worried Woman” almost makes one lament this fact, as the two are clearly suited for each other, especially when bonded by Cyrille’s chemical reactions. This opening tune, written by the guitarist, is architected as preface to Smith’s four-part tribute to Alice Coltrane. Taking her spiritual presence as inspiration, and prompting the musicians via both graphic scores and standard notation, he leads as comfortably as he recedes, pushing terrain beneath him as an earthly treadmill. Frisell and Cyrille, meanwhile, deepen their cosmic relationship without the merest flicker of predetermination, opting instead for a freer correspondence within boundaries before breaking down the set to drums alone: a master class in psychosomatic response.

The bandleader’s title track, a fractured blues for the 21st century, reveals its treasures just enough to sense their shine yet without letting on the nature of their constitution. As in his “Pretty Beauty,” which ends things as they began, it erases as many words as it writes across a palimpsest of self-awareness. Between them is the spontaneously created “TGD,” which sounds like the autopsy of a laser gun performed by someone who’s taught the procedure a thousand times before. Its forensic qualities are superseded only by an overwhelming delicacy of intuition, which now more than ever touches the ears with unerring relevance.

Andrew Cyrille Quartet: The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM 2430)

The Declaration of Musical Independence

Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The Declaration of Musical Independence

Bill Frisell guitar
Richard Teitelbaum synthesizer, piano
Ben Street double bass
Andrew Cyrille drums, percussion
Recorded July 2014 at Brooklyn Recording
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixing engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: September 23, 2016

The Declaration of Musical Independence is more than drummer Andrew Cyrille’s ECM leader debut. It’s a veritable document thrown into the living waters of jazz history. Eschewing expectations by means of the very kit that courts them, he welcomes guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Richard Teitelbaum, and bassist Ben Street for a faithful reading of his emergent articles.

Article 1: Centeredness is a Way of Life

John Coltrane’s “Coltrane Time” is match-lit helium in slow motion, treating the core as spinal. Cyrille sets the stage with his playful take on this Trane rhythm, threading it like a bead along invisible wire. Invisible, that is, until Frisell’s distortions flower like a tree of nerve impulses drawn with an anatomist’s attention to detail. It’s a feeling carried over in the guitarist’s own “Kaddish,” which by quiet dint turns brainwaves into melody.

Article 2: Understanding the Moment Means Understanding Each Other

This tenet is unquenchably expressed in three freer excursions. Where “Sanctuary” and “Manfred” look simultaneously within and without in order to braid connections of molecular value, “Dazzling (Percchordally Yours)” takes Cyrille’s own chordal suggestions as cues for spontaneous composition. Here, Teitelbaum’s textural approach to the synthesizer possesses the studio like a ghost in search of bodies through which to voice messages from some great beyond, only to end up the other way around: with instruments piercing its translucent skin by grace of sonic needlepoint.

Article 3: Treat Echoes Not as Symptoms but as Causes

Ben Street’s “Say” is the album’s one dose of symmetry. A riveting combination of liquid guitar, fulcrumed bassing, and drums so anciently brushed they feel like cave drawings, it eats resonance as if survival were otherwise impossible. Teitelbaum likewise divides his own “Herky Jerky” along bipartisan lines, engendering a rougher blush of purpose.

Article 4: Look Back to Listen Forward

The remaining pieces, both by Frisell, speak to this truth most deeply. Whether in the solo dream that is “Begin” or the concluding quartet of “Song for Andrew No. 1,” a philosophy of continuity prevails, drinking air like water, and filling producer Sun Chung’s masterful cast with diurnal plaster. All of which makes for one of the profoundest statements to fall under ECM’s purview in years.

András Schiff: Beethoven – The Piano Sonatas (ECM New Series 2000)

Beethoven The Piano Sonatas

András Schiff
Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas

András Schiff piano
Concert recordings at Tonhalle Zürich, March 2004-May 2006
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 25, 2016

Renowned conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) famously said: “Bach is the Old Testament and Beethoven the New Testament of music.” But this analogy only feels true in chronological terms. In any other aspect, the reverse would be more accurate, for while in Beethoven we encounter the judgments of a vengeful God, in Bach we feel the salvation of grace. Indeed, ECM’s New Series had been enamored with Bach for years before dipping into the canon of Beethoven, and Hungarian pianist András Schiff (previously known for his spirited renderings of Schubert, Mozart, and Bach himself) did that and more, gifting us with revelatory performances of the entire Beethoven piano sonata cycle. Totaling 32 in number, these sonatas remain the heart of the iconic composer’s oeuvre, each its own ecosystem of influence.

“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. “Like picture restorers,” he goes on, “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.”

To that end, Schiff boldly decided to perform each sonata in at least 15 cities before sitting down for these live recordings at Zürich’s Tonhalle, the acoustics of which seem spun directly from the piano itself. Schiff believed the immediacy of live performance was vital in bringing Beethoven to life on CD. The only exception is the final disc, 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 in the ears.

Volume I: Sonatas opp. 2 and 7 (originally ECM New Series 1940/41)
Recorded March 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

Kernels of what would later be construed as Beethoven’s genius are easily gleaned from these groundbreaking first offerings. Consequently, Schiff waited for decades to ease into this material, a decision that rewards our listening most profitably. Schiff is adamant about following the interpretive clues Beethoven has left behind in his scores, taking to heart—even as he sets aside—the elisions and additions of his predecessors. He greets each sonata as a new friend, idiosyncrasies and all. 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 let this be the 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. A sense of freedom within bounds, like a child who is limited only by imagination in terms of what can be seen and experienced under constant supervision. This sonata is a grand experiment in movement. It runs, trips, falls, and picks itself up again in its repeated attempts to regain locomotive control. This seems to be one of the most difficult of the 32 sonatas to play, if only because of the demand for sustained focus and emotive energy that plows its whimsical soil. The Allegro is a grandiose series of textures all describing the same playroom and recasts us as parents watching over the children 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 trivial things. This isn’t the philosophical Beethoven, 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 with the slightest hint of Händel to keep our ears in check. Superbly controlled runs and arpeggios make this a joyful listening experience overall. 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 of colors that one wonders where the young Beethoven found the time to pluck them from the proverbial tree. Of the early works, this more than any other showcases 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.

Volume II: Sonatas opp. 10 and 13 (originally ECM New Series 1942)
Recorded November 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

Schiff’s second installment is full of surprises and reflects the superior dedication of its execution.

Sonata No. 5 c minor op. 10/1 (?1795-7)
The op. 10/1 sonata feels like running. Like all of the early sonatas, it’s always moving. Whether slowly, briskly, or at a horse’s gallop, one feels it going somewhere, even if the destination isn’t always clear (not least of all to Beethoven himself). This leaves the performer to determine said destination and to commit to a path leading there. The op. 10/1 further 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 who think deeply before speaking.

Sonata No. 6 F major op. 10/2 (1796-7)
The opening Allegro establishes a one-to-one correlation between form and melodic drive. Schiff’s playing 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; only that its nooks and crannies are deep enough to inscribe loaded variations into an otherwise dainty surface. A standout in the entire cycle. What Schiff does with it is miraculous.

Sonata No. 7 D major op. 10/3 (1797-8)
A bit statelier in feel, this sonata nevertheless rushes forth with its own power. Among the quieter sonatas, it embodies a chamber-like sensibility. And even though it may not hit you over the head with its style, it packs a delayed punch, seeping 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, here the op. 13 if anything feels “sympathetic.” The opening movement fights its way to a centered mode of understanding in its attempts to overshadow internal pain. It is consolatory, patient, even kind. Its many spontaneous shifts are never instigated without careful reassessment of their own devices. The recapitulating motif is comforting, mellifluous in its persistence. The Adagio binds us. 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.

Volume III: Sonatas opp. 13, 22 and 49 (originally ECM New Series 1943)
Recorded February 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

“Already in his early sonatas,” Schiff tells us, “Beethoven is a psychologist, not only as regards the organization of the movements according to their inner logic, but also in the unity between the various movements.” Thus does the trenchant pianist bring an analytical edge to his third installment in the Beethoven cycle. Its offerings are rougher around the edges, even as they continue to be microscopic in precision.

Sonata No. 19 g minor op. 49/1 (1797?)
This sonata sets the tone for a disc that is markedly miniaturistic. The gestures are quick and painless, never lingering too long on the tongue before subsequent flavors take over.

Sonata No. 20 G major op. 49/2 (1795-6)
There’s an overt delicacy to this sonata that is strangely invirogating in light of the last volume’s “Pathétique.” In contrast to the energetic infusions required on Schiff’s part to bring it to life, the Op. 49 presents a more relaxed Beethoven, rocking us gently through the final menuetto into the op. 14/1.

Sonata No. 9 E major op. 14/1 (1798)
While this sonata and its present company are relatively easy to play, they’re not without their difficulties (though one would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the melismatic uniformity of Schiff’s effortless stylings). While this might not be one of the most memorable of sonatas overall, its lively Rondo is a highlight among them.

Sonata No. 10 G major op. 14/2 (?1799)
For all its brevity, this one is charmingly captivating. The opening Allegro ripples like a fluid stream caressing rocks rounded by centuries of erosion. The Andante plods along with an almost pompous assuredness, swaying its head from side to side as it prowls the streets for attention. The closing Scherzo is deceptively constructed, cloaking itself in the mood of a sporadic chase, a cat in search of the elusive thematic mouse until…not a pounce but a strange remorse over the killing of one’s object of entertainment.

Sonata No. 11 B flat major op. 22 (1800)
This might very well be Beethoven’s “breakout” sonata, as it marks his return to the four-movement structure he made his own. With a sort of fractured bravado, it circles an axis of motifs like a bird whose confidence gives its victims that much more false security before diving in for a meal. The Adagio practically floats on its own ineffable air, wafted ever higher with each beautifully articulated trill. A compellingly woven Minuetto prepares us for a masterful Rondo as bidirectional runs travel into two succinct and conclusive chords.

Volume IV: Sonatas opp. 26, 27 and 28 (originally ECM New Series 1944)
Recorded April 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

This disc marks the end of Beethoven’s “early” period (though Schiff is quick to point out the arbitariness of such categorical distinctions). Here we see Beethoven the character actor, the pantomime and experimenter, donning a new mask with each successive gesture.

Sonata No. 12 A-flat major op. 26
As with every sonata on this standout disc, Schiff displays the utmost patience with the material. The gentle opening is an early morning brightening into daylight: brief snatches of dreams flit across the mind, only to be lost again as we try to grasp them. The Allegro bustles with the liveliness of daily chores, while a funeral march adds a new element into the mix.

Sonata No. 13 E-flat major op. 27/1 “Quasi una fantasia”
The second movement pulses with the precise syncopation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and is a key moment of transcendence in the collection. As affecting as it is brief, it is suitably balanced in its weight and distribution. This is followed by a plaintive Adagio and the crowning Allegro, between which Schiff exhibits the diversity of his approach as he winds up for a rousing finale.

Sonata No. 14 c-sharp minor op. 27/2 “Moonlight”
Perhaps nowhere is Beethoven’s posthumously acquired pomposity more sensitively challenged than in this, the ubiquitous “Moonlight”-Sonata (the name is not Beethoven’s, given instead by nineteenth-century German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who likened the piece to an evening view of Lake Lucerne). There are, perhaps, justifiable reasons why its opening movement has been so widely interpreted, excised from its connective tissue and upheld as a prototypical organ of its kind. Yet none of that seems to matter the moment it falls within Schiff’s purview. The rhythm is duly appropriate, never lagging while allowing for every note to speak its piece. Schiff makes a seemingly bold yet ultimately sensible move in following Beethoven’s controversial cue to depress the sustain pedal for the Adagio’s entire duration. This prescription has more often been overridden because of the modern piano’s longer sustain. Schiff’s magically realized solution seems as much a matter of his choice of instrument as of his technique. The central Allegretto is a vital hinge—“a flower between two chasms” in the words of Franz Liszt—to another recognizable burst of melodic intensity in the Presto, in which the sonata form is resurrected with ferocious efficacy.

Sonata No. 15 D major op. 28 “Pastorale”
The “Pastorale”-Sonata, with its instantly recognizable grandeur and intervallic range, marks a period in which Beethoven’s deafness was growing markedly worse. The subtitle was appended by publisher A. Cranz and should be taken with a grain of salt, lest one miss out on the contrasting dynamics of the two central movements. The Scherzo is one of Beethoven’s more charming creations and spices the mix like laughter before hurtling into a kinetic gigue and virtuosic finale.

Volume V: Sonatas opp. 31 and 53 (originally ECM New Series 1945/46)
Recorded December 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

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 (again, not the composer’s own), it is this sonata’s gorgeous Adagio that stands out and partners well with the closing Allegretto’s full sense of development and reprise. The “Tempest”-Sonata is, then, more than just turmoil. It is the sum of its parts, from the subtle and unseen to the 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. 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.” 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 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 kaleidoscopic, revealing new perspectives with every turn. The virtuosity here is a wonder, all the more so for Schiff’s ability to shake off romanticism and play with unwavering consistency. In doing so, he allows the variety of the piece to come through with surprising 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 a sonata in its own right, inverted and miniaturized as if for a shelf of curios.

Volume VI: Sonatas opp. 54, 57, 78, 79 and 81a (originally ECM New Series 1947)
Recorded April 2006, Zürich Tonhalle

In this sixth installment, continuing with the “middle” sonatas of Beethoven, emotions span the gamut from exuberance to anxiety. Schiff consciously places the formidable “Appassionata” second in this program, bowing to chronology over any a posteriori prestige collected along the way like so much canonic dust.

Sonata No. 22 F major op. 54 (1804)
This sonata, which Beethoven placed far higher than his ever popular “Moonlight,” ebbs and flows with a series of thoughtful ruminations and graceful attacks. The result is an accommodating piece, as brilliantly bipolar as it is unassuming—an enjoyable experiment in pastiche that seems to spit out its final thoughts like a conference presenter rushing to stay within time.

Sonata No. 23 f minor op. 57 (1804-06) “Appassionata”
A clear winner. Schiff’s playing courses like blood and with as much feel for change as one could ask for in a work for solo piano. That being said, one should not mistake Beethoven’s antics for showy musicianship. Accordingly, Schiff loosens the seams only so far before allowing the piece to dictate its own narrative trajectory. Just prior to composing this sonata, Beethoven was confronted with the irreversibility of his hearing loss, and so one might wish to see the “Appassionata” as a cry to hear rather than to be heard. Schiff finds in the octaval opening “an atmosphere of absolute danger.” Beethoven switches moods with the deftness of a seasoned quick-change artist, infused as the Allegro is with dark undertones and rhythms drawn from Scottish folk songs. The middle movement takes a very rudimentary theme and unpacks it for all it is worth. The finale is like a dirge in fast-forward, a tragic life condensed into nine minutes of fleeting youth and unrequited aspiration, and ends with a crunchy spate of frightening detonations.

Sonata No. 24 F-sharp major op. 78 (1809) “à Thérèse”
Beethoven was apparently partial to this sonata above all others. Either way, it stands as a vibrant testament to his dedicatory streak. Throughout its two-movement structure, the composer (and Schiff by extension) weaves a picturesque tapestry with essentially limited materials. The opening is filled with plenty of titillating flourishes to satisfy any type of listening while second movement nearly buckles under the weight of its profusion of ornaments, letting up just enough to maintain its integrity.

Sonata No. 25 G major op. 79 (1809)
Short and sweet is the op. 79. Its condensations, along with an undying sense of melody interspersed with unsettling mortality, make for (if you will excuse the alliteration) a pointillist portrait of playful proportions.

Sonata No. 26 E-flat major op. 81a (1809-10) “Les Adieux”
Regardless of what one wishes to make of the exact inspirations behind the programmatic titles of each movement (“The Farewell,” “The Absence,” and “The Return”), this sonata surely tells a story, albeit an elliptical one. The beauty of “Les Adieux” is its openness to interpretation: neither Beethoven nor Schiff want to impose an overarching theory onto the listener. It is a delectable and varied journey throughout which we encounter a variety of characters. In this sense, the sonata “speaks” in both whispers and shouts, relating a tale that never ceases to enthrall.

Volume VII: Sonatas opp. 90, 101 and 106 (originally ECM New Series 1948)
Recorded May 2006, Zürich Tonhalle

Continuing with its strict chronological adherence, Schiff’s seventh installment of the Beethoven cycle brings us squarely into the composer’s “Late Period.” The Sonatas opp. 90, 101, and 106 represent a turning point in Beethoven’s piano literature, blossoming with a more radical unfolding of internal conflict.

Sonata No. 27 e minor op. 90 (1814)
Characterized by Beethoven as “a contest between the head and the heart,” the op. 90 is a solitary endeavor into the hinterlands of introspection. Pastoral moments bleed into fleeting lapses of determination that quickly devolve into old habits.

Sonata No. 28 A major op. 101 (1815-17)
Where op. 90 is brooding, op. 101 is nostalgic. This sonata is one of the more romantic in the Beethoven catalog, and opens with assurance in spite of his near-total deafness (descriptive cues, such as “Somewhat lively, and with innermost sensitivity” for the selfsame movement, supersede the standard markings in order to better convey to performers how he imagined the music in his head). The sonata continues with its elegiac exploration of the past and its bearing on the present, culminating in an agitated finale.

Sonata No. 29 B-flat major op. 106 (1817-18) “Hammerklavier”
Considered by many to be the most daunting work of all piano literature, the nearly 45-minute “Hammerklavier” heaves like a gentle beast. Yet the seemingly insurmountable sonata is pulled off here with literary panache. The first movement delights with its palpability and energetic drive. The brusque Scherzo feels all the more so in the company of such towering neighbors, managing to hold its own while injecting much-needed whimsy. Next is the monumental Adagio, in which Schiff gives all the breathing room one could need in order to devour the final movement, building from a tentative Largo to an astounding fugue and coda in which each and every note gallops with equine agility.

Volume VIII: Sonatas opp. 109, 100 and 111 (originally ECM New Series 1949)
Recorded September 2007 at the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany

Schiff is utterly committed to the urtext: he observes every prescription laid out before him. His approach is as constellatory as the music itself, carrying on with or without us. It is not so much timeless as it is timely and deserves at least one undivided listen in sequence, if only to absorb 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 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, a heavy lament. Though 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 prismatic 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.

Clearly, the demands presented to Beethoven interpreters are great. Not only must they play under the looming shadow of an enigma, but must also machete their way through centuries of scholarship, public dissemination, and imperialistic reputation. Schiff seems unable to escape the context of each sonata as he approaches it, even as he owns up to his modernity. His renderings have left an indelible mark on the Beethovenian pantheon. He plays as if every finger were its own pianist, offering music that demands attention not because it is Beethoven’s, but because it is ours.

(This seminal boxed ends with a disc of encores gathered from these concerts. Released also as their own album, they are reviewed separately here.)