Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

2511 X

Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

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.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2294/95)

Diabelli

Beethoven
Diabelli-Variationen

András Schiff Bechstein piano, Franz Brodmann fortepiano
Recorded July and December 2012 at Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn (Brodmann fortepiano) and Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano (Bechstein)
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn (Brodmann) and Urs Bachmann (Bechstein)
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a performer, pianist András Schiff gifted his own magnum opus when he traversed Ludwig van Beethoven’s entire cycle of 32 piano sonatas for ECM’s New Series. Now he turns to the same composer’s own magnum opus (120, to be exact): the formidable Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli. The Diabelli Variations, as they are more popularly known, have since taken on a status unsurpassed in post-Bach keyboard literature. At the time (1819) he was working on the variations, his Missa solemnis was also taking shape, though the Diabelli project would prove to be no less large in scope. Beethoven was one of 50 composers to be commissioned for a variation on Diabelli’s apparently paltry waltz (the legendary assertion of Beethoven’s dislike of it is questionable and, at any rate, irrelevant), and the only among them to expand the task to such fruitful proportions. His fearless imagination works wonders with the bait dangled before him, to the extent where he not only steals it unscathed but also hooks the dangler in the process.

Schiff

Humor, invention, and fragmentation: these are the hallmarks of Schiff’s Diabelli. Or should one say, Diabellis, for indeed the pianist offers two readings of the work on polar instruments. The first flows from a 1921 Bechstein grand, by which the music’s kaleidoscopic qualities come into sharp focus. Under Schiff’s control, it’s obvious that each variation carries something of the last one forward—from revelry to stubbornness to whimsy. Schiff handles these changes with consummate fluency, and with a spirit of continuity that massages every kink out of the material at hand(s). The occasional caduceus of trills is enlivening and along with the collection’s most brilliant moments reveals new details. Some are smoother, more legato, others more oriented toward punctuation, but the range of invention makes of the Diabelli a Beethoven primer and shows a craftsman enjoying himself so much that he must share it with the world.

Hearing these same vignettes on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano from Beethoven’s time is akin to witnessing history come to life. Like an old film reel, it has the quality of an era into which we have never stepped but from which we have proceeded to unravel, making of its relics whatever we can along the way. There is a more immediate charge to them, something urgent and vibrant, if not also vital.

There’s no dearth of fine Diabellis to satisfy the appetites of the curious. For total command, one will want to compare Alfred Brendel or Sviatoslav Richter; for something fresher, Paul Lewis or Rudolf Serkin; and for both, Artur Schnabel (who also plays on a Bechstein) or Stephen Kovacevich. Fewer versions exist on fortepiano, most notably by Andreas Staier. But the chance to hear one of each from the same artist on the same record is unprecedented. In addition to Schiff’s enthralling performances, his interpretation has the benefit of the composer’s previously unknown original scores at hand. These provide valuable cues absent from previous interpretations and set a new benchmark for future ones. “Schiff does not just perform the music,” observes Paul Griffiths in the album’s booklet, “he performs the music performing itself,” and in the listening we add another layer of performance that rewards us with gold.

And on the topic of rewards, this album has more in store. By way of the Bechstein we have Beethoven’s final sonata, the Opus 111, which Schiff revisits with remarkable elasticity. Even more so than his last account for ECM, it combines fluidity and rigidity as if they were one and the same—at once a reflection of Beethoven’s writing and of Schiff’s ability to evoke (invoke?) it. The piano is crisp under his fingertips in the first movement, pliant in the massive second (a statement for all time if there ever was one), and bends under a deluge of melodic tensions toward a sweeping finale, throwing parting handfuls of ash and fairy dust.

Not to be left out, the fortepiano yields a majestic Six Bagatelles. The storyboarding of Beethoven’s Opus 126 has rarely been so lucid. It is as if the music were bound into a book, its materiality as undeniable as its sonority. From rolling syncopations to quiet expanse, these pieces sit at an intersection of vertical architecture and horizontal travel. In them beats the heart of a musician who lives to paint, applying colors over and over until they become three-dimensional.

(To hear samples of Diabelli Variationen, click here.)

Beethoven: Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello (ECM New Series 1819/20)

Beethoven Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete Music for Piano and Violoncello

András Schiff piano
Miklós Perényi violoncello
Recorded December 2001 and August 2002 at Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

Before leaving his indelible mark on the interpretive history of Beethoven through his account of the 32 sonatas for ECM, András Schiff posited an evolutionary affinity between that pantheon of piano literature and the sonatas for piano and cello. Smaller in scope yet bursting with ideas, these pieces pose just as many challenges to any who dare swim in their waters. As an artist of such high yet sensitive caliber, Schiff needed a most able ally with whom to run the gamut of this treasure store. There could be only one answer to that call: cellist (and fellow Budapestian) Miklós Perényi, who brightens the torch of his prodigy via these chamber masterworks with panache and smooth execution.

The program moves in generally chronological order, beginning with the Sonata No. 1, Beethoven’s Opus 5. The two Opus 5 sonatas were written in Berlin in 1796, the result of an association with Friedrich Wilhelm II, a fine cellist in his own right. Both sonatas mark a genetic shift not only in Beethoven’s evolution as a composer, but also in that of the chamber sonata, which in the past treated the featured instrument as a satellite. And yet, while Schiff concedes that the Opus 5 sonatas do indeed weigh in the piano’s favor, he and Perényi play with such balance—the cellist lending especial robustness to the supporting chords—that one would hardly know this without a score at hand.

The complaisant key of F Major imbues the opening measures with sanctity, opening the floor for a harmonious conversation. The foreshadowing is palpable: something is going to give. The pianism realizes these tensions in cascading arpeggios, each the garment of something restless, pure. The seamlessness is such that we needn’t even know the names of these musicians. They become something else entirely: not one with the music but musically one. Take, for instance, the central Allegro, which tents the sonata with effervescent keyboarding and hands the cellist a heavy shovel with which to dig. That an instrument of four strings can hold its own alongside one with 230 is a feat in and of itself. The pianism is exquisite here and indicates a playfulness in the early Beethoven that would translate into the cantilevering architecture of the later works. The concluding Rondo fully realizes the restlessness implied in the opening movement, weighing rocks against piles of feathers. Beethoven’s brilliance, even at this stage, is that he doesn’t give in to the temptation of treating the final movement as an endpoint or culmination of all that came before. It is, rather, its own entity with idiosyncratic hopes and dreams. These and more are borne out in the denouement, which shuffles Apollonian and Dionysian motives in a series of what in his liner notes Martin Meyer calls “surprising displacements of the entries.” These render the anticipatory nature of the sonata as something far beyond the purview of catch and release.

The inaugural Adagio of the Sonata No. 2 in G minor leaves greater room for interpretation than its counterpart in the No. 1. More floral than faunal, it nevertheless bounces its way through another gargantuan middle passage before emerging onto a Rondo of filigreed delight.

Also composed in 1796 are the Variations in G Major on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Beethoven would not have had chance to hear the oratorio live at the time, and so engaged with this theme by proxy of suggestion. The music is buoyant, typically classical in style yet also speckled with shadows by way of its intakes, leaving one scrambling to indulge in the decorative. As Meyer so eloquently puts it, “The constructive impetuosity minimizes any lingering over ‘beautiful’ passages or ideas; the virtuosic beginnings become displaced at the end by an unprecedentedly compact presentness, with the prospect of an uncertain art of the future.”

The Opus 17 “Horn Sonata” (1800) takes on a distinct arc of its own. That this sonata was originally composed for piano and Waldhorn (hunting horn) and later revised for the combination presented here is perhaps obvious only in the opening Allegro, the impulses of which function as building blocks for all that follows. Its themes burrow underground in a brief Adagio toward the fullness of the conclusion, which leaves us with a structure of integrity and, in its own way, poise.

From clarion to clean, we are treated to two further sets of variations—the 12 variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” in F Major, op. 66 and the seven on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” in E-flat Major, WoO 46—drawn from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The former’s polite dance steps contrast artfully with the latter’s sluggish beginnings and sweeping uptake.

Although the Sonata in A Major, op. 69 selectively draws from its predecessors, the thinking put forth by its introduction is progressive and elicits the deepest anticipations in the program thus far. It is, in effect, a sonata unto itself. This is followed by the only Scherzo in the collection, a wonderful hiccup that stretches the sonata to four distinct sections. The golden Adagio is as pious as it is brief, while the final Allegro—tentatively and first but then with resplendence—runs in joyful, secular circles. This sonata is a highlight of the record: for its compression, for its focus, for its spirit.

The two Opus 102 sonatas date to 1815. The first, in C Major, is another compact affair. Not only is it the shortest (its total running time falls just shy of the Adagio of the Sonata No. 1), but it is also the most varied. A tender back and forth builds a core of mutual dependence. The second, in D Major, also crosses tightly engineered bridges. The jaggedness of the outer movements cradles, unscathed, a robust Adagio that practically cries for the gentle fugue that photosynthesizes into the final Allegro.

Although sure to become a benchmark, these renditions may not necessarily replace those of Richter and Rostropovich, but they do make suitable companions. Their forward motion is intriguing: there is little breathing room. In Beethoven’s hands the piano-cello combination slips into a “Zen” sort of oneness between medium and message. That the listener can feel that unity so nakedly is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this album. Accordingly, it begs deep, undistracted listening.

In his own liner notes, Schiff admits that playing these works in sequence is like surveying Beethoven’s entire biography. Elsewhere, cellist Steven Isserlis has expressed similar feelings toward the cycle, saying, “[I]t is a journey through a life.” To this narrative Schiff and Perényi add a salient point: not only did Beethoven have an extraordinary life, but so too did his music, and forever will so long as ardent interpreters like these walk the earth in his shadow.

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 – Fellner/Nagano (ECM New Series 2114)

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Till Fellner piano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano conductor
Concert recordings, May and November 2008 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montréal
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In his liner essay, Paul Griffiths rightly credits Ludwig van Beethoven with having given the orchestra “a voice,” and in the composer’s final concertos offered here we have even greater reason to bask in his voluminous discourse, made all the more so for the temperamental piano at its center. These two musical forces, strings and keys, “speak to us by speaking to each other.” Such plurivocity, Griffiths further contends, is only heightened by the performances on this disc. Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who previously graced us with his Bach interpretations, now enacts an equally contested dramaturgy in these mighty, yet ever delicate masterworks. At the podium is Kent Nagano, a personal operatic favorite who treats the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal like a giant chorus far too expansive to be constricted by human throats.

Fellner (photo by Ben Ealovega)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805/06)
While most concertos of this magnitude would begin with an orchestral prelude of sorts into which the soloist may be dropped like so much creative ink, here the latter opens the floor in the tonic before spreading its fingers into the dominant key. The composer holds our attention throughout its entire 19-minute expanse, a concerto in and of itself; no small feat considering that it twists the barest of thematic cores into a veritable unicorn’s horn of charging force, brought home in the glorious final chords. The second movement entrances us with its attendant imagery of Orpheus taming the Furies before Hades. Having only melody to hold on to in its shadows, we put our trust in this music completely. Our abstruse confusion is over before we know it, and as we are swept up in the ensuing Rondo we find that we’ve been dreaming all along.

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op. 73 (1809/10)
Despite having earned the nickname of “Emperor,” this concerto is, Griffiths reminds us, nothing if monarchical. Opening in tutti and with a graceful cadenza, the Allegro charts a formidable exposition through landscapes unchanging and deciduous alike. Dancing configurations in the first half underscore not only a depth of virtuosity, but also of melodic effect, while denser punctuations in the second thread our minds with braids of protracted thematic closure. A pensive Adagio heralds ever so subtly the newly emerging Romanticism of the age. Fellner’s careful pedaling ensures that we get the most out of every phrase as the piano descends toward the lone bassoon that bleeds into the concluding Rondo. One can almost feel the hems of dresses and tailored lapels tracing their grand circles in the air as the instrumentalists engage in a lavish dance. Beethoven sweeps his brush through the piano’s densest colors and uses these to paint a rousing portrait of epic intimacies.

Both of these concertos are dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria (1788-1831), a student of Beethoven’s who would also become a great patron. That such powerful creations might sometimes not exist without likeminded support is a sad yet potent reminder of the invisible tug-of-war between music and economics. Thankfully, ECM’s finely chosen interpretations and engineering betray none of these politics and present the music in all its richness without any strings attached. We see this in Nagano’s palpable free spirit, in the orchestra’s every nuance, and in Fellner’s attentiveness to each cumulative set of notes. He plays the middle movements faster than most, giving them new life for a new century, plowing ahead with the immensity of fortitude and passion that spawned them. Bravos all around.