Yuuko Shiokawa/András Schiff: Bach/Busoni/Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510)

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff
Bach/Busoni/Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa violin
András Schiff piano
Recorded December 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

Seventeen years separate the first appearance of Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist András Schiff on ECM’s New Series and this long-awaited follow-up. Here they bring their intimate knowledge and experience to bear on sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Through its sequence and execution, the program reveals as much richness of ideas within the pieces as between them.

Shiokawa Schiff
(Photo credit: Barbara Klemm)

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016, dating to his 1717-23 tenure as Kapellmeister at Köthen, is emblematic of a then-nascent genre, and finds both composer and interpreters ordering lines of many shapes and sizes. Schiff’s role at the keyboard is a challenging one, each hand operating independently yet with deep awareness of the other, while Shiokawa must paint with an actorly brush from first note to last. The vulnerability she brings to the opening Adagio is but one example of her ability to take something so lilting, so fragile, and render it impervious to the trampling feet of time. From there she takes us on a journey of inward focus, and by an interactive cartography traces bubbling streams to destinations of delight.

Although Busoni was more steeped in Bach than perhaps any composer before or since, one would be hard-pressed to find Baroque affinity in the first movement of his Sonata No. 2 in e minor, Op. 36a. Towering over a decidedly Beethovenian landscape, it leans toward and away from its historical precedents with fervor. Whereas single movements in the Bach were facets of a larger mosaic, each of Busoni’s sections is a sonata unto itself. The gargantuan final movement, however, is a theme and variations on the Bach chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen, wenn ich in deiner Liebe ruh,” as it appears in wife Anna Magdalena’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1725. Busoni’s 17-minute exegesis goes from funereal to exuberant and back again. Between those worthy bookends stand two slim, insightful volumes. Where the Presto is playful yet adhesive, the somber Andante treads over shifting terrain.

In light of these fantastic excursions, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major comes across as non-fiction. As the composer’s last violin sonata, it holds a status all its own, and its details are organically suited to the duo. Where the trills and harmonies of its Allegro yield an enchanting ripple effect, the Adagio holds us suspended as if in need of nothing more than a confirmation of breath. A brief Scherzo scales the highest peak before trekking down into an Allegretto with a joy given life through musicians who care genuinely for everything they touch. It’s therefore difficult to listen to this recording without reminding oneself that Shiokawa and Schiff are partners in both music and life. Not only because they play so lovingly, but also because they listen to each other with rapt attention, inspiring nothing short of the same.

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.)

András Schiff: Encores after Beethoven (ECM New Series 1950)

Encores after Beethoven

András Schiff
Encores after Beethoven

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

For this collection of encores, recorded during his cycle of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas yet never released until now, pianist András Schiff presents selections that, in his own words, “are closely related to the previously heard sonatas.” More than that, however, when taken as their own program, relationships within these pieces are as deep and meaningful as between them. Each is a satellite of the Beethovenian mothership, beaming down messages of darkness and light in kind.

The Allegro assai in e-flat minor from Schubert’s from Three Piano Pieces (D 946) introduces the disc with a synchronicity of medium and message that indeed echoes Beethoven in its grammar. With a dramaturgy perhaps only describable as oceanic, it sparkles with lunar pull. The Allegretto in c minor (D 915) that follows unfolds by means of a subtler narrative structure, spiraling in on itself, now with deliberation over desperation.

Alongside this door, Schiff opens another marked Mozart in the form of the little Gigue in G major (KV 574). This altogether exquisite piece is an Escherian staircase in sound, and serves as prelude to “Papa” Haydn’s Sonata in g minor (Hob VXI:44). That Beethoven deeply admired Haydn can be no secret after bathing in these spring waters. Schiff’s further distillation is worthy of that admiration as well, and feels as organic as the music is calculated, marrying as it does delicate restraint with robust linearity.

Were it not for the applause, Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in b minor (D 817), might be overwhelmed by the aftereffects, but as it stands inhales and exhales a full color palette in this folkish dance. Played, as written, from the heart, its charm is magnified tenfold by this performance.

Standing equally alone yet inseverable from the surrounding tissue, Beethoven’s Andante favori in F major (WoO 57), last heard on Volume V of Schiff’s magnum traversal, echoes an even more wholesome quality and shows just how completely Beethoven was able to tell a story.

How appropriate that we should end where it all began: with Bach. Between the tastefully wrought balustrade of the Menuet I and II from Partita No. 1 in B-flat major (BWV 825) and the Prelude and Fugue in b-flat minor (BWV 867) fromThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, one can almost taste the dust of Bach’s architectural wonder, which in this context seems like a return to fundamentals. Bones before flesh, and breath before bones.

Live Report: András Schiff at Carnegie Hall

Pianist András Schiff is a genius. By that I don’t mean to describe an artist of exceptional talent, which nevertheless Schiff proved himself to be with his appearance at Carnegie Hall on 30 October 2015. I intend the original Latin meaning of “generative power” or “inborn nature,” by which his playing was duly possessed. This embodied approach to performance has become clearest since his tenure with ECM started in 1997. Schiff’s latest for the label is an all-Schubert recital spanning two discs and culminating, as did the Carnegie performance, in the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major of 1828. Whereas the album documents his reckoning with a Viennese fortepiano built that same decade, an instrument of concave power that shores up the Schubertian temple against any resistance of preconceptions, for this appearance only the convexity of a Bösendorfer would do. For him these qualities have never been opposite but complementary, as was clear when he sounded Schubert’s ominous trill. But let us, like Schiff, save the best for last.

Schiff piano

In addition to its sublime musicianship, Friday’s concert sported a masterful program, sequencing the final piano sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and dear, ill-fated Schubert, in that order. Schiff finessed his way through Haydn’s picture-perfect Sonata in E-flat Major (1794) like a skilled orator: No gesture or utterance was wasted. His Adagio was all the more barren for being surrounded by two leafier branches, neither of which shed a single trident in the gusts of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C Minor (1821/22). The latter came only after Schiff had hunched over the keys, as if in prayer, to gather himself. Equal parts brush and chisel, its curious, two-movement structure revealed the independence of Schiff’s fingers, and the composer’s in turn for treating repeats as opportunities for self-discovery and, in the dolorous latter half, holistic expression. The coda nevertheless resounded with affirmation of life.

Had it not been sandwiched between two heavyweights, Mozart’s Sonata in D Major (1789) might have seemed like poor casting. But its placement after intermission was refreshing. Although a subpar sonata, one that inlaid its frame at the expense of a clear scene within it, its technical flourishes emitted from Schiff’s fingers with seaward force. Thus cleansed by lack of challenge, we could navigate Schubert’s winding paths, tenderized to receive their shadows. Schiff opened the sonata like a thumb-worn book and read it aloud to the audience with burrowing grandeur. Despite its length, the first movement was eclipsed by Schiff’s restrained handling of it, which assured that the impact of the final Allegro rung true. Between them were a passionate Andante, in which he barely touched the keys as his left hand arced back and forth over the right, and a sunnier Scherzo. Throughout, Schiff was always moving ahead with the future in mind and all the necessary construction materials at his fingertips.

Just as the Goldberg Variations belong to Glenn Gould, so too does Schubert to Schiff. All the more appropriate that he should end the concert with the second of two encores, playing the Aria from Bach’s masterwork. In his handling it became an open lattice, if not also the vine creeping up it, dreaming of its own birth from seed and soil. Before that we were treated to Schumann’s rarely performed Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) in E-flat Major, featured on Schiff’s 2011 ECM recording of the same name. Although written on the brink of madness, it was as lucid as all else, and showed Schiff as, more than anything, one of the great listeners to ever grace the Carnegie stage. That he played it all from memory would have seemed amazing had it not felt so inevitable.

Schiff bow

(See the article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun.)

András Schiff: Franz Schubert (ECM New Series 2425/26)

Franz Schubert

András Schiff
Franz Schubert

András Schiff piano
Recorded July 2014, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

While András Schiff has reinforced the worthiness of Bach and Beethoven at the piano over a sprawl of recordings for ECM’s New Series, he has also carved out a hallowed space for the music of Franz Schubert, beginning in 2000 with a recording of the C-major Fantasies and now deepened with this composer-titled collection. In his liner text, “Confessions of a Convert,” Schiff discusses the transition to “authenticity” via historically minded performance, a movement that popularized use of period instruments and, ironically enough, the newness they brought to canonical repertoires. “There is an astonishing wealth of old keyboard instruments hidden in museums, foundations and private collections, many of them in prime condition,” he writes, speaking after his transformation from skepticism to advocacy. “Getting to know them is essential for the student, the scholar, the musician: it is a condition sine qua non. Playing on fortepianos—and on clavichords—should be compulsory for all pianists. Their diversity is amazing.” Even more amazing is the diversity of Schiff’s willingness and ability to adapt to these changing colors, to treat each as having equal value in the keyboard spectrum. For this recording he plays a fortepiano, built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820, which Schiff has owned since 2010. Attentive listeners will recognize it as the very one employed for the second version of the pianist’s Diabelli traversal, also for ECM. Once again, engineer Stephan Schellmann underscores the intimate life of this instrument.

Schiff

The Sonata Nos. 18 in G major and 21 in B-flat major serve as centerpieces. An overall translucence pervades the first, and the opening movement, marked “Molto moderato e cantabile,” gains purchase by the fortepiano’s immediacy, which ensures that even the greatest leaps never forget where they came from. Schubert’s propensity for quietude is on full display, contrasting fragile highs with muddier lows. And while Schiff’s Brodmann might at first seem better suited to the Andante, it proves itself to be just as capable pulling off the half-tucked rolls of the Minuet. And the concluding Allegretto? Let’s just say that, if the sound, in combination with Schiff’s artful handling of it, hasn’t won you over by this point, then the album just might not be for you.

The Sonata in B-flat major, widely considered to be the pinnacle of Schubert’s writing for piano, feels not so much new as renewed, given access to muscles it might not otherwise exercise on a modern grand. If the G-major Sonata felt at best quasi-Beethovenian, then this one begs a more genuine comparison. From the low trills that interrupt with periodic hints of foreboding in the first movement to the flexion of the final Allegro, there’s more than enough for the comparatist to savor. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Four Impromptus (op. 142), is the fortepiano’s potential so evident. The seesawing between minor and major in the Andante and the spirited undercurrents of the Scherzo, and all the subtleties required to make those dynamics felt, come naturally to the instrument, which I daresay adds a boldness all its own by virtue of its focus.

Schiff’s reckoning of the op. 142 proves there’s still much to discover in these robust pieces. Each impromptu has its own charm, but the second, an Allegretto in A-flat major, proves the need for a tactful performer. Schiff balances its understated seeking with immediacy, all the while through his pacing lifting the music beyond an exercise in mere pathos. Some of the most dramatic moments of the album can be found here, barely eking out over the captivations of the Andante that follows it to round out the center.

Even in the shade of these gargantuan sonatas, the popular Moments musicaux hold their ground. In Schiff’s handling, they come across with spontaneity and breadth. Each has its own captivation, but the Andantino in A-flat major is a most remarkable vehicle for the fortepiano’s middle register. By the final movement, these beauties are swimming in fresh disclosures.

Not to be outdone, however, are two chosen miniatures. The Ungarische Melodie (Hungarian Melody) in b minor introduces the program with evocative subtlety, while the Allegretto in c minor, written for the departure of a friend, populates more spacious melodic tenements. Both contain a wealth of emotional pigments. Between the azure flash of a dramatic pause and the rusty ochre of hindsight, not a single piece piece of the puzzle feels out of place.

If this is your first time encountering Schubert’s piano works, it may just become a reference recording. If you come to it with familiarity, especially by way of Schiff’s nine-course feast on Decca, then you will want to keep it for comparison and discovery with all the rest. And to be sure, even putting aside questions of instrument, this recording is by nature historically informed, because it is itself history in the making.

(To hear samples of Franz Schubert, please click here.)

Robert Schumann: Geistervariationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2122/23)

Geistervariationen

Robert Schumann
Geistervariationen

András Schiff piano
Recorded June 2010, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist András Schiff, best known for his surveys of Bach and Beethoven, combines the former’s austerity and the latter’s dynamism in this, his second ECM reckoning with Robert Schumann. More so than the first, the present program tracks a composer stepping out from Beethoven’s shadow and into a light very much his own. As any Schumann interpreter perhaps must, Schiff brings awareness of attendant shadows as well. These he evokes through a balance of restraint and transparency.

To be sure, the Papillons (1829-31) one of Schumann’s earliest piano works (it is his Opus 2), benefits from just such a well-rounded approach. This collection of 12 innovative vignettes linked in brazen montage is as colorful as it is compact. Indeed, each section would feel like the beginning of a longer excursion were it not already so elaborate. The C-sharp Waltz and Waltz in D are notably filigreed in this manner, while the playful chromatism of the Polonaise in D leaves a tannin-rich aftertaste.

The first sonata, his Opus 11, follows. Written in 1835 and dedicated to his future wife, Clara, it is an effusive and utterly heartfelt work, one from which Clara would draw themes for her own compositions. From the introduction alone, it’s clear that Schiff has hit upon the right formula. The modest Aria that follows is, at just over three minutes, a lovely foil to its 13-minute predecessor, and all the more enchanting for it. Even in his propriety, Schiff teases out an epic flow from its underlying fortitude. The final two movements pulse with theatricality. The last is engaging from the first, not least for Schiff’s handling of its quieter passages, the sonata’s most delicate. Through both jagged stitching and smoother threadings of the needle, a brocade of melody and atmosphere emerges that works lyrically, but with a certain sense of muscle that is distinctly Schumann.

The Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” (1838) are his most widely performed pieces and represent another innovation: children’s music for adults. Among the first of their kind, they have inspired many imitations but none quite so charming and musically direct. Moments of quietude and solitude increase among those of play as they drift onto darker, more dreamlike avenues, culminating in the grimly apportioned “Der Dichter spricht” (The Poet Speaks). Whether opaque or translucent, all 13 are suffused with a spirit that in Schiff’s hands feels as fresh as the ink drying on the original score.

On the subject of original scores, the Fantasy in C of 1836 will be either the decisive or divisive hinge, depending on your taste. Schiff works vitally through the first two movements, his left hand working overtime in support of the flowering right. Furthermore, he brings out that special stream of consciousness that pervades even the softest moments of Schumann’s writing at its most mature. In a brief liner note, Schiff delights in his possession of a first-version manuscript of the third and final movement. In this iteration, Schumann revives the final theme of the first movement—a strategy later scrapped for its pedantry. For the tried-and-true, Schiff tacks on the final, published version at the album’s end, leaving those used to the latter searching for it there. Perhaps a more useful strategy would have been to switch the two, but this is one pianist’s vision, and to it we are invited to abide. Whatever your preference, an inherent boldness perseveres.

The Waldszenen (1848-49) or “Forest Scenes” are similar in title to the Kinderszenen, but reflect a starkly different spirit. Schiff seems to draw energy directly from nature and experiences of observation for a reading that is understated yet lyrical. He brings enough insight to inspire but not to overwhelm, allowing the solace of each to occupy its respective niche with plenty of room to slumber.

Last on the program proper is Geistervariationen, or “Ghost Variations.” These pieces of 1854 are rarely performed, much less with such veracity, and comprise Schumann’s final piano work. Brokering some urgency here and there, the main theme and its five variations bespeak a tender privacy that is self-assured and wise, despite being written in the wake of a failed suicide attempt and soon before admission into an asylum. And yet, here it stands, calm and collected, in need of a wider circle of interpreters to make its visions known.

On the whole, this has the makings of a benchmark record, although some listeners will want to pair it with other classics in the field. These Kinderszenen, for instance, may not replace Horowitz’s beloved traversal of the same for CBS, but are a close second and well worth as much consideration as Schiff has put into them. Neither will Richter’s take on the C-Major Fantasy likely forfeit its place at the top for some (or any) time to come. Nevertheless, what we have here is another example of a profound relationship between artist and label, triangulating with a composer whose piano music glistens anew, as if of its own desire to be heard.

(To hear samples of Geistervariationen, click here.)

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier – Schiff (ECM New Series 2270-73)

2270-73 X

Johann Sebastian Bach
Das Wohltemperierte Clavier

András Schiff piano
Recorded August 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier is more than a magnum opus. It’s an origin story. Practically speaking, it houses a prelude-fugue couplet for each of the 24 major and minor keys, twice over. Dated 1722 and 1742 respectively, Books I and II are the subjects of two earlier ECM New Series recordings by Keith Jarrett, while pianist Till Fellner has lent his shadows to Book I. Jarrett made the bold decision to record Book I on piano and Book II on harpsichord, thereby giving discernible substance to the two decades that separate them. Fellner’s poignant rendition is only half completed, and it remains to be seen whether the rest will reach market. Until then, label devotees have another.

In his marvelous liner notes, Paul Griffiths characterizes the WTC as “one of the central thoroughfares of western music.” He goes on to speak of prelude and fugue as gate and path or, another way, “Things in The Well-Tempered Clavier always come in pairs, but pairs that, unlike butterfly wings, display an essential asymmetry, if an asymmetry that will sound inevitable, even natural.” Doubtless, this asymmetry is inevitable, for it is the pollen that keeps Bach’s fields fragrant. As a renowned veteran of the composer, András Schiff dusts decades of return into these flora. For him the question is not whether to approach them as studio recording or as performance, because for him the two are inseparable. “To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colors,” he asserts. As in the cover art by Jan Jedlička, the music crosses lines in a deepening network of variation.

Schiff concludes his portion of the booklet with a note on pedal use—or, in his case, total lack thereof. The music is all the freer for it, the affectation a potent expressive tool. Like a digital photographer reverting to manual, Schiff’s process gives vision to its subject with meticulous care. Whether or not this creates a “purer” sound is entirely subjective, though one can hardly fault the sincerity of his choice, for indeed the pedal is often fantasy’s servant. In its place is a tasteful reverb, lacquered at Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera under the watch of engineer Stephan Schellmann.

Eschewment of pedal shortens the distance between attack and delay, making it more akin to human speech. Already, in the C major Prelude of Book I, we feel a linguistic touch speaking through those famous arpeggios as Schiff makes of the piano a syllabic organ, no mere percussive machine. His ability to distinguish palatal colors becomes further apparent in the A-flat major Prelude. Schiff’s hands-only approach lends pop and shine to the faster movements, and to the slower adds emotional weight. It also makes the rhythmic complexities glow. Whether the playful grinds of the C minor and C-sharp minor Fugues or the balance of taste and virtuosity of the D major Prelude, the relationship between medium and message becomes, again, inevitable the more one listens.

Perhaps most illuminating in this regard is the equal partnership of the left and right hands. Listen, for instance, to Schiff’s handling of the C-sharp minor Fugue ground, which folds words into sentences and sentences into stories, or the coalescence achieved in his E minor Prelude. From epic carriage to dulcet tickling, such nuances sweep the landscape free of its weeds. Other moments, like the F-sharp major Prelude, are the espresso in a latte universe. Also noteworthy are the extended trills, which Schiff varies to suit the mood at hand. Twirling like maple propellers at one moment (G minor Prelude) and methodically slow the next (F-sharp minor Fugue), they hold us captive at any speed.

Brilliant execution of the C major Prelude and C-sharp minor Fugue stand out in Book II, sounding at least like three hands. The sheer volume of intimacy in the D-sharp minor Prelude draws a comparable spiral of creative focus, and the famous F minor Prelude enchants, ghostly but tangible. The F-sharp major Prelude is yet another notable. This Schiff manages beautifully, shifting with perfect pacing between the dotted eighth-sixteenth couplets and moving into strings of sixteenths in this 3/4 piece. Likewise, his downward chromatic steps in the A minor Prelude are intuitively realized. The final Prelude and Fugue in B minor scintillate with new beginnings and good tidings. Thus, Schiff has locked us into Bach’s prism (especially in the E minor Prelude of Book II) with the precision of a Spirograph wheel and has held us there until the design can no longer repeat itself.

Happiness theorists believe that we become habituated to surpluses of pleasure or positive stimulation, to the point where even the most meaningful activities lose the value they once held. Bach’s WTC noshes on time with the same measured reflection that the iconic shepherd chews on his wheat stalk. In that idle motion is a world of temperament whose secrets will never be fully disclosed. Listening to this music today, it is easy to imagine how different our world is from the time in which it was written. The beauty of Schiff’s performance and Bach’s insightful writing is that, despite the potential infinitude of performances the score invites, at its heart is a survival instinct that will never falter so long as life walks this earth.

(To hear samples of this album, click here.)

András Schiff: Schubert C-major Fantasies (ECM New Series 1699)

Schubert Fantasien

András Schiff
Franz Schubert C-major Fantasies

András Schiff piano
Yuuko Shiokawa violin
Recorded December 1998, Schloss Mondsee
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It is tempting to say that the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was ahead of its time. In the words of pianist András Schiff, “Schubert has such modernity—perhaps his time has only arrived now.” When encountering the 1822 “Wanderer” Fantasy for the first time, the characterization would seem to fit like a tailored suit. And yet, if we track its subsequent influence on composers as diverse as Liszt and Ligeti, it becomes clear that he was a composer of his moment, and it is this moment to which so many listeners have returned in their own wanderings. It might, then, be more accurate to say, “Modernity has such Schubert.”

In the first half of this recital disc for ECM, Schiff flows through the piece’s technical challenges like a river through a forest. As remarkable as this is, more intriguing are the ways in which he navigates its emotional mazes, for as a Schubert interpreter Schiff prefers poetry to drama. He gives requisite oomph to the magisterial introduction and from it elicits rounded gestures implying acres of pasture at a single touch of key. Yet his most commanding moments are the gentlest. Almost as still as mirrors, they reflect the leaf-patterned light that seeks them. Pulling away the vines, Schiff smells the moss, fecund with mystery. Knowledge of Schubert’s all-too-brief life inflects these passages darkly. From the spectral to the colloquial, the “Wanderer” spans the gamut of responses to landscape, though the Beethovenian desperation in the final fugue is undermined by an intermittent restraint that may sit oddly with fans of benchmark recordings like Richter’s or Pollini’s. Still, a resplendent sign-off gives the piece a total shape that is Schiff’s own.

His wife, violinist Yuuko Shiokawa, joins her partner for Schubert’s Fantasy D934, also in C major. Published posthumously in 1850, its proper score rested dormant beneath the recital stage until the 1930s. Emerging in a ghostly whisper, Shiokawa draws a spider’s thread through the piano’s microscopic tides. This is the dream to the former fantasy’s waking, made manifest through the strains of an inviting dance. Shiokawa brings appropriate balance of airiness and strident romanticism to what is arguably some of Schubert’s most beautiful writing. She partners well with the piano as a parallel voice—neither competing nor unified. Shiokawa also handles the technicalities with grace, particularly during a delightful passage that floats pizzicato in cascading undulations from Schiff’s fingers. Another flowery conclusion, if more succinct than the last, again closes the circle with confidence.

The recording here is noticeably soft in texture, heavy in the lower register. The combination sucks a bit of wind from Schubert’s sails in portions, especially in the finale of the “Wanderer.” Both Fantasies remain purest in their introductions and in their quieter turns. Such issues aside, with these two pieces Schubert shows that perhaps all music is fantasy.

András Schiff: In Concert – Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 1806/07)

 

András Schiff
In Concert – Robert Schumann

András Schiff piano
Recorded at Tonhalle Zürich, May 30, 1999
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

András Schiff returns to ECM with a live all-Schumann recital. Capturing what he sees as the composer’s “burning inventiveness,” the Hungarian pianist allows himself no contrivance in letting the notes speak on their own terms. He jumps right into the deep end with the vibrant Humoreske op. 20 (1838). Written during a time of separation from his future wife, Clara Wieck, in it Schumann incorporates a hidden “inner voice,” which he imagined as Clara’s own. Throughout its invigorating 28 minutes, we are treated to a mosaic of inner passions. Schiff handles its fluid transitions, intermezzi, and stylish moves with requisite grace, allowing plenty of space in the slower passages for the music’s full effect to shine. This is followed by the Novelletten op. 21 of the same year, which comprise the composer’s most extensive piano work. Though distinguished by its exuberant approach, it too embraces Clara’s “voice from a distance” (Stimme aus der Ferne) as a key animating force. Throughout, Schiff captures Schumann’s dynamic range admirably well, teetering between the Apollonian and Dionysian at every virtuosic turn. Yet it is in the “Concerto without Orchestra” that is the Op. 14 Piano Sonata in F minor (1836, rev. 1853) that we encounter the recital’s most luxurious moments. The pianism shines here in a finessed first movement, while making the third (a set of variations on a theme by Clara) sing like love itself. The final Presto rolls off Schiff’s fingers like water. Schumann had originally intended to call an 1839 tribute to his dying brother by the title Leichenphantasie (Corpse-fantasy). Clara convinced him to change the title for publication, thus giving us the Nachtstücke (1839), of which No. 4 constitutes a consolatory, if bittersweet, encore.

This was the first recording of Schumann’s piano music I ever heard, and is one I will always return to for reference. Schiff proves he is just as comfortable with the Romantics as he is with the Baroque masters, and in Schumann has found a most rewarding synergy. The music is, despite its grandiose touches, undeniably intimate, casting one deep look inward for every outward glance. Prosaic though they may be, these performances are anything but analytical. Whatever your familiarity with Schumann, this is an album you will want to hear.