Concert recording Tonhalle Zurich
Volume 1, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6, Volume 7, Volume 8
International press reactions to the first volume of Schiff's Beethoven cycle released in October 2005 were unanimous in their praise and critics expressed high expectations for the edition as a whole. "If the first volume (superbly recorded and annotated by ECM) is anything to go by, this Beethoven cycle will not only provoke and illuminate but give the lie to those who wonder if there is room for yet another", wrote Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone while Hugh Canning, in the Sunday Times, drew a similar perspective: "If the results match this volume we are in for a memorable cycle". And in the German weekly Die Zeit Wolfram Goertz spoke of "an integral that deserves our most thorough attention as the beginning is spectacular". Le monde de la musique on the other hand quite laconically greeted one of the "great Beethoven interpreters of our time."
Schiff who early on played and recorded comprehensive cycles of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, has taken his time with Beethoven. Until he was 50, the 32 sonatas marked an obvious gap in his repertoire. The pianist has always emphasized his respect for the extreme demands of this repertoire and its intimidating performance tradition built up by the legendary masters of the past like Schnabel, Fischer, Kempff or Arrau to name but a few. Beethoven's piano sonatas, written in a fairly steady flow of productiveness between 1795 and 1822, are the composer's very laboratory. No single opus resembles another; each of them arrives at completely new solutions - in extreme concentration and density. The cycle, which Hans von Bulow once called the pianist's "New Testament", forms the central compendium of Beethoven's creative work and no other group of pieces allows for a comparably detailed overview of his stylistic development.
Schiff's concept to record the sonatas live and on two different pianos has found much respect with reviewers. In an interview for the Swiss magazine Musik und Theater Schiff again outlined his unconventional approach: "I'm fully convinced that vivid performances are possible only in front of an audience. I obviously don't share Glenn Gould's opinion that concerts are superfluous and that work in the recording studio is so much more important. Being an artist you live for those very moments when music really happens." Schiff plays each programme in 15 different cities before recording it in the Zurich Tonhalle, famous for its outstanding acoustics. "I really feel that my performances become more mature from concert to concert. The repetitions are a very valuable lesson." As to his alternating use of a Steinway and a Bosendorfer, both maintained by the renowned piano technician Fabbrini in Italy, Schiff emphasizes Beethoven's versatility as a composer and his great range of sonorities: "Most of his piano sonatas are rather lyrical and smooth pieces - they are poetic, philosophical, sometimes even humorous creations that don't 'bite' in the way the 'Appassionata', the 'Pathetique' or the 'Hammerklavier' sonata do. They have nothing in common with the cliche of the heroic and dramatic Beethoven. That's why I prefer the Bosendorfer in these works."
Schiff has repeatedly claimed that Beethoven's early sonatas need to be taken absolutely seriously as they offer highest compositional quality right from the start with op.2. The sonatas op. 10, written between 1796 and 1798 when the composer was not yet thirty years old, form a group of subtly interrelated masterworks. In Schiff's view they are pieces for "connoisseurs and amateurs", each of them displaying its own clearly defined character while the famous 'Grande Sonate Pathetique' dating from 1798/99 introduces a dramatic attitude and a symphonic writing that was to become a central trait of some of Beethoven's most important works.
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Striving for the Impossible
Beethoven's piano sonatas were composed over a period of twenty-five years, that's to say from 1795 to 1820, and they reflect an enormous spectrum of creative ideas and solutions to problems. Do any comparable challenges exist for you as a performer?
I would probably have to say no. When we say that Beethoven's output of sonatas for piano brings with it a wealth of material and forms, of concepts and structures, of visions and not least of moods, it doesn't inevitably imply that all other composers are easier to play, but that the challenge of this corpus of pieces as a 'work in progress' is immense. You could perhaps place it alongside the two parts of Bach's "Well-tempered Clavier". However, the genre of the "prelude and fugue" is, per se, much more closely defined than the sonata movement, so that the types of transformations Beethoven creates in the genre of the sonata aren't possible.
What are the specific features and particular difficulties of the thirty-two sonatas, not only for the performer but also for the listener?
Firstly within the time span you mentioned, there is a tremendous evolution in the composing, whereby the general tendency leads to an ever-greater economy of means. But secondly, each sonata from the f-minor op. 2/1 onwards is a masterpiece of individualisation and character. Unlike with Mozart and Schubert, there are no repeated gestures in Beethoven: everything unfolds and is developed in a new aspect. The pianist has to convey this in his interpretation, and at the same time the listener has to be actively involved in Beethoven's innovative processes. For something to be just nice or pleasant isn't possible with Beethoven.
The agility of the pianist as a thinker, and at the same time as a well-prepared craftsman - do the two have to be brought together under the same roof?
That really is one of the greatest difficulties for successful Beethoven performance. Because Beethoven never proceeds schematically (and this of course is a general hallmark of great music), and on top of that because it's precisely the differences, variations and elaborations, etc., that distinguish the piano sonatas, the performer is continually confronted with a wealth of challenges as regards forms, articulation and sonority. There is no such thing as a simple 'Beethoven sound'.
On the other hand, there used to be so-called Beethoven specialists, of whom the most prominent was probably Wilhelm Backhaus, just as there were Chopin and Liszt specialists. Are such specialisations obsolete today?
Probably. Arthur Rubinstein, for example, was a world famous Chopin performer who also played some Beethoven without running the danger of becoming a Beethoven specialist. As far as Beethoven and Chopin are concerned, they demand two very different ways of playing the piano. Although Chopin's music is certainly great, it does not have the philosophical and existential depth of Beethoven. Chopin's music is sonority, it is engraved, and it arises very much out of the piano. For Beethoven the piano is a means of realising the impossible-his own musical thoughts. Beethoven encompasses not only pianistic means of expression, but also sonorities conceived in terms of orchestral and chamber music. The difficulty lies in giving voice to each of these types of sonority.
You are the opposite of a specialist yourself, although you have been committed to Bach, then Mozart and Schubert.
Specialisation is unhealthy. By that I include the tendency always to play the same pieces by a particular composer. That tires and restricts your creative horizons. On the other hand, you should also be aware of your own personal limits. No pianist plays everything equally well. And if we take contemporary music into account, a possible if not perhaps realistic repertoire stretches from the baroque to Stockhausen, Lachenmann and Rihm. To encompass all of this in the right way poses enormous problems, not least from the point of view of actual sound.
What kind of sound do Beethoven's piano sonatas demand?
As I said, practically every note matters in its specific relationship to the piece and its character. But perhaps Beethoven 'suits' contemporary music better than Mozart or Chopin for instance, because for his part he was more a sculptor than a painter-the corners and edges in his music stick out sharply and must be heard to do so. Beethoven's aesthetic governs the sounds according to his thematic and spiritual ideas, and not the other way round.
If we take the early sonatas, what are their particular challenges for the pianist and the musical interpreter?
First of all, we have to take these works absolutely seriously. They are not in any way preliminary exercises for the later works. Of course, the collective sonatas display an evolution, but already with op. 2/1 the highest quality is achieved. On the other hand, the first three sonatas are not particularly economically written; Beethoven enthuses and exaggerates, repeats while varying, hardly moderates himself at all. As a result, the pianist has to be careful to hold the form and content together. Moreover, the long Sonata op.7, with its wonderfully rich sonorities, should never sound boring. Finally, Beethoven's early works require a piano technique that also comprises great virtuosity.
Youth, energy, physical and psychological well-being, the acclaimed improviser - all this can also be seen in the handwriting of these pieces; and the three Sonatas op.2, in particular-of course with the exception of the "Hammerklavier' - Sonata -, are for me the most demanding works, not only technically but also from the point of view of memory.
The three Sonatas op. 10, on the other hand, appear by comparison to be already more ordered, more concentrated, in many ways less playful.
Without doubt. All the same, Beethoven and his publisher again used the collective form of the triptych, which suggests a certain unity. And whereas the Sonatas op.2 are much more inward looking, and composed for Beethoven's own use, the Sonatas op.10 already turn outwards, towards connoisseurs and amateurs. Perhaps for that reason they are slightly easier to play. From the point of view of their overall conception, the composer pitches their moods differently. The c-minor Sonata is highly dramatic and thus still follows in the footsteps of the f-minor work from op. 2, but I see the F-ma-jor Sonata op.10/2 as clearly humorous and comical, while the concluding D-major Sonata is much harder to define. Certainly, it marks not only the high-point of the op.10 triptych, but thanks to its quite extraordinary slow movement it can claim a special place within Beethoven's sonata output.
The sonata design has also changed. For the first time, with the Sonatas op. 10/1 and 10/2, Beethoven composes three-movement works.
This results naturally from the concentration of material I described before. Additionally, in the case of the F-major Sonata there is no real slow movement; the pale, melancholy mood of the"Allegretto"gives it more the character of an intermezzo.
What would you describe as the special attributes and landmarks of the c-minor Sonata?
Drama and turmoil. Its opening theme is a so-called "Mannheim rocket" as in op. 2/1, but it is sharpened by its dotted rhythm. The tempo of the first movement is "Allegro molto e con brio", and therefore not a "tempo ordinario". Beethoven can be seen here as a rebel, a revolutionary, perhaps even slightly as deliberately provocative. In addition to the virtuoso explosiveness, we continually meet with many-voiced chords. The piano writing is thickly scored, the musical phrase continually poses questions, which are intensified by the rhetoric of the text. As further contrasts we could cite the wide range between pianissimo and fortissimo, or the enormous gaps between high and low registers, or the dramatically effective pauses, which by the way must be counted out exactly in performance. As far as the tonal range of the first movement is concerned, it makes me think much less of the piano, than of an orchestra. In short, with its extreme economy, this is breathless music, unresolved by any catharsis.
On the other hand, the "Adagio mo/to" has a completely different atmosphere. A-flat-major serenity, so to speak, between the assault of the outer movements.
Here the whole structure becomes expanded. The elements of motion are highly differentiated, but precisely notated, down to the minutest ornaments. The 'baroque' tendencies of this movement, which is a sonata form without development, reminded Edwin Fischer of Bach's Partita in e minor. Outbursts like the one that occurs from bar 17 could actually confirm this. The basic character is essentially lyrical, but even here elements of unrest resonate - for instance in the unusually rich harmonic palette - and the coda, with its syncopated rhythm, strikes me as very pensive.
In the third movement we meet with storm and stress again, extreme speeding up of tempo and a C-major ending that hardly corresponds with our notion of major at all.
Not at all: it is written as major, but we hear it as minor. The whole movement is secretive and urgent, although the E-flat-major subsidiary theme is high-spirited and dance-like. The extremely short development anticipates the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. The various pitches and registers sound orchestral, and the fact that the work disappears mysteriously and rapidly at the end of the coda without any ritardan-do creates a ghostly conclusion.
By way of contrast, the following sonata is full of F-major joy fulness. You interpret it as a humorous and capricious piece.
Yes. If it weren't for the pale "Allegretto" placed as an intermezzo, like a dark valley between the peaks of the outer movements, we could speak of unbroken cheerfulness. The key reminds us of course of the"Spring"-Sonata for piano and violin, and also of the "Pastoral-Symphony. Mischief, wit and something like 'great expectations' come to the fore. The theme begins questioningly and with an upbeat, and the following triplet answers like an echo of birdsong.This again shows how intelligently Beethoven is able to establish contrasting sonorities. After this rather aphoristic beginning, broad, singing lines develop: neither Haydn nor Mozart shaped their phrases so expansively.
But it is particularly here that Beethoven uses the art of surprise.
The sonata is peppered with unexpected changes. We only have to think of the explosive gesture in c minor (bar 41 ff.), or the baroque 'quotation' of invention technique in the development, or of the 'false' recapitulation (bar 118ff.). We only return home nineteen bars and a couple of startling modulations later! Then the traditional slow movement is replaced by that "Allegretto" whose crotchets rising in unison evince a striking sense of subdued tension. But the fact that the second half is so polyphonic, or that the trio would evoke a yearning chorale in D-flat major, like a distant song, is something we would hardly have been able to predict from the movement's pale beginning. The finale is amazingly witty. It's true that it is in sonata form, but Beethoven incorporates fugal passages, as though in homage to Bach. Interpretatively it's important for the opening to begin rather discreetly and quietly, so that enough energy and intensity are left in reserve for the development, as well as for the very virtuosic, contrapun-tally-worked recapitulation.
With the third sonata of the op. 10 triptych Beethoven finds yet another form of expression: four movements, of which the "Largo e mesto"towers almost waywardly over the others.
But only almost. Because from the point of view of its thematic proportions and its moods, the work is extremely harmoniously designed. The first movement, very unusually a "presto", is thematically open to many directions and metamorphoses, and it there-fore conveys immense constructive momentum. Of course the slow movement forms the climax: such grief and such depth were quite unprecedented. The tone of voice of d minor, which may remind us, for instance, of Mozart's Piano Concerto K.466 or of "Don Giovanni", attests to an existential dimension. The breadth of the transformations is enormous: a 'still-life', as it were, in the first eight bars, then the aria-like declamation which ventures almost into the operatic, then the dynamic and rhythmic intensification in the second theme, and finally the chorale-like F-major passage which already throws light on the middle section of the slow movement from Schubert's B-flat-ma-jor Sonata. To me, the music at this point carries a sense of release.
But surely not for long: after five bars it's interrupted by a "fortissimo"explosion.
Yes, the movement vibrates in its contrasts. In addition to the introverted brooding and the consolation, we find outbursts and sighs -a whole range of emotive gestures. Only with the grandiose coda, rising from the depths of the bass to the plaintiveness of the descant in an almost unbroken chromatic progression, is this contrasting interweaving of moods left behind.
So the following movements must per se have a more gentle effect?
Beethoven knows of course that only a gently-toned minuet, offering a careful 'return to life', like the one in D major, can provide the appropriate transition. For me, such moments as these, where the tension is resolved and something new is prepared, belong among the most beautiful and moving experiences in Beethoven. Admittedly, they can only succeed completely if the audience participates attentively, without breaking the spell. The trio of the minuet brings with it humour, and humour is of course reflected again in the concluding rondo, with its repeated questioning phrases and with the clashing dislocation of melody and accompaniment in the second episode. What's really impressive is the way that after the big cadenza Beethoven doesn't end the movement with fireworks, but allows it casually to die away quietly in such a genial way.
Barely a year later, that's to say between 1798 and 1799, the composer produced one of the most famous of all his sonatas, the "Grande Sonate Pathetique" op. 13.
Even today it's not clear as to whether or not the title came from Beethoven. I don't imagine it was his choice, but he didn't object to it, which implies a kind of acceptance. There is much that is "pathetic" about it, above all in the first movement. The grand, theatrical, "Grave" introduction in dotted rhythm is again something new. Its model is the French Overture. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were all familiar with this form. What does the introduction express? Certainly pathos, suffering, agitation - and with a symphonic breadth, in which the theme is shaped in an easily graspable form. This also applies to the "Allegro molto e con brio" that follows, as well as to the other movements.
Do you see this "Grave" purely as an overture for what follows, or as already a theme in itself?
For me it is definitely the first main theme. Because unlike in the case of the Sonata op.111 the opening recurs several times, varied on each occasion. This is why I follow Rudolf Serkin and Charles Rosen in so far as when I repeat the exposition I also repeat the "Grave". I think this is what Beethoven had in mind, although in the first edition the repeat applies only to the "Allegro". Unfortunately the autograph score is lost. The dynamic marking at the beginning of the "Grave"is simply" fortepiano", so one should absolutely not play a thundering "fortissimo", but instead increase the intensity of the extremely thick, many-voiced piano writing rather carefully. The last three bars with their cadenza-like rhetoric, although they are without a crescendo, prepare the way for the "Allegro" with great tension.
How should the tempi be defined at such transitional moments?
A certain agogic delay is desirable, but it is more important to find the right proportions between the"Grave"and the "Allegro". The "Allegro" is "di molto e con brio"and absolutely has to be played "alla breve". Incidentally, Chopin composed the first movement of his "Funeral March"-Sonata op. 35 in a similar way, and at the parallel point -that's to say between the "Grave" introduction and the "doppio movimento"-it shows definite references to the "Pathetique". The theme of the"Allegro"again spirals upwards in the style of a "Mannheim rocket", but it is filled out with thirds and sixths, which, combined with the fast tempo, poses certain technical demands: heavier weights than at the beginning of the Sonata op. 10/1 have to be lifted. The subsidiary theme begins in e-flat minor, an extremely unusual key for Beethoven, but it very quickly modulates. The way the "Grave" reappears at the beginning of the development is highly significant: its mood is different - beseeching, and very mysterious. The development itself, with its bare octaves and the "drum roll" (bar 167 ff.), increases the orchestral effect. The fact that it begins in the distant key of e minor, with accelerated quotations of the "Grave"theme, epitomises for me the new and revolutionary aspect of the sonata as a whole. And finally, the last return of the "Grave", before the coda, is eerie, spreading a kind of frozen stillness against all expectations.
Beethoven shapes the two following movements in a noticeably more classical manner, as though after such unruliness there must be a return to a certain politeness.
Exactly. The outer sections of the "Adagio cantabile" in A-flat major are like a song without words; then in the middle section, with its polyphonic complexities, the timbre is more like chamber music, and finally with the"sforzati"it becomes positively orchestral. The slow movement of Schubert's c-minor Sonata reproduces this section very closely. The rondo is similarly classical and clearly laid out, with its main theme recurring four times. In the episodes Beethoven varies things in the way we would expect from him: partly with contrapuntal elements, as in the second episode, partly with lyrical ideas, as in the "dolce" motif. Not until the coda, from bar 182, is the connection to the first movement made clear; then it becomes virtuosic again and, with much rhetoric,"pathetic". In between the two closing phrases, cascading down from the descant, the "Grave" theme slips in once again, with a very discreet questioning gesture, which is however immediately answered with a furious "no".
Andras Schiff in conversation with Martin Meyer