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

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff

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/Peter Serkin: Music for Two Pianos (ECM New Series 1676/77)



András Schiff
Peter Serkin
Music for Two Pianos

András Schiff piano
Peter Serkin piano
Recorded November 1997 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Produced by Philip Traugott, Peter Serkin, and Manfred Eicher

In his liner notes, Klaus Schweizer describes a unique meeting of minds when pianists András Schiff and Peter Serkin appeared on stage together for a November 1997 concert held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather than join forces, these two “protagonists” rubbed those forces together to see what kind of electricity could be produced, so that “the audience had the pleasure of enjoying a contest of temperaments…and may have come away with the impression that such ‘contrapuntal’ music-making can be more stimulating than the harmony of two kindred souls.” The spontaneity of said performance and all its glorious vices have made their way into this subsequent studio recording, for which we are treated to the same sounds that graced the eyes and ears of all who were there for this rare event. As Schweizer so keenly sees it, this is a program of fugal magnificence, each work drawing from Bach’s highest art its own vivid line of continuity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, K. 426
Mozart’s fugue may be without commission or context, but we can safely assume it was more than an honorary exercise. As its grinding voices quickly resolve themselves into harmonious contrapuntal weaves, we feel a transformation in every resolution. Through a delightful, if slightly cloudy, game of trills and trade-offs, the musicians pull off a garden-fresh take on this engaging opener.

Max Reger (1873-1916):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven for Two Pianos, op. 86
These variations on a Beethoven bagatelle (op. 119) are like a spindle from which is cast a veritable maypole of permutations. The opening Andante, quoted almost verbatim, brightens with every revolution. With moods ranging from rapture (Agitato) and majesty (Appassionato; Allegro pomposo) to exuberance (both Vivaces) and tearful remembrance (Sostenuto), these colorful miniatures feed like a rainbow into the glowing waterfall of the final Fugue.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924):
Fantasia contrappuntistica for Two Pianos,Busoni-Verzeichnis 256b
What began as an ambitious attempt to complete the unfinished final movement of Bach’s almighty Die Kunst der Fuge turned into Busoni’s crowning achievement. Every gesture of this massive organism is rendered with the utmost artistry and given its full breadth in the exponential possibilities of a keyboard squared. The 10-minute introductory movement alone carries the weight of the whole. A series of fugues and variations “drops” like blocks in a Jacob’s ladder toy, of which the third Fugue and the Intermezzo stand out, the former for its overwhelming heights and the latter for its solemnity.

Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448/375a
Far removed yet of the same passionate spirit is Mozart’s only sonata for two pianos, which receives here as lively a performance as one could ever hope for. Two no less than thrilling Allegros bookend a scintillating Andante, combining to form one of the composer’s most widely recognized pieces and closing this cohesive double album with a thick wax seal.

Since this release, Schiff has continued a longstanding relationship with ECM. Listen and find out where it all began.

Werner Bärtschi: W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi (ECM New Series 1377)


W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi

Werner Bärtschi piano
Recorded July 1988 at Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this ECM debut, Swiss pianist Werner Bärtschi offers up an intriguing and carefully conceived program. Having studied with Klaus Huber and Rudolf Kelterborn, Bärtschi brings a decidedly compositional attention to his playing that lends itself well to the material at hand. He begins with Mozart’s C minor Fantasie (1785), which, as the longest piece, reads like a single human life. It is not a simple reimagining of the past but a reliving of it, for to play the piano is to articulate a biography in sound, using the body in imitation of what bore those same feelings in “real time.” After such a piece, the Four Illustrations on the Metamorphoses of Vishnu (1953) by Scelsi may seem like a startling transition. Yet humble quartet presents us with a rare programmatic gesture from the Italian, whose microscopic approach actually balances out Mozart’s broader strokes and veils the turmoil of mortality behind the surface of the spirit made flesh. Bärtshi surprises us yet again with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. This early 1976 version is like a dream we question upon waking: Did we really hear it, or did the music rise in our minds out of an unspoken memory? And so, when we next encounter Mozart in the 1788 B minor Adagio, we hear him with fresh ears and open hearts. Rather that scoping out the Mozartean influence in the surrounding works, we see the latter funneling into the former. Bärtschi follows with a piece of his own, Frühmorgens am Daubensee (1986/88), realized during an early morning hike in the mountains surrounding the eponymous lake. In it we hear snatches of something upon the wind, distant conversations, activities, worldly movements, the beginning of an avalanche that never quite forms. This salves us nicely for the relative onslaught of Busoni’s 1921 Toccata, a masterful yet demanding unfolding of theme and counterpoint. After such a towering cascade of notes, Mozart’s B major Sonata (1783) is like a gentle return, a pair of hands lowering us slowly to the earth, leaving us to slumber in a blanket of solid ground.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich provides a beautifully conceived essay which, despite risking an overuse of the word “oriental” (it appears no less than five times in the liner notes), makes a viable case for Bärtschi’s musical choices as being firmly rooted in the spirit of magic and fantasy that engenders the program as a whole. Where Jungheinrich characterizes this as a piano recital of “Mozart and…,” I would go a step further and say it is equal parts “…and Mozart.” yet although Mozart bookends the recital and inhabits its fulcrum, his infrastructural presence is no more significant than the validation of the superstructure. As such, the continuity between these pieces is a narrative rather than formal concern—not a linear continuity, but one in which the potential for speech is equally present at every stage.

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