Concert recording Tonhalle Zurich
Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6, Volume 7, Volume 8
Andras Schiff, the distinguished interpreter 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 Hungarian pianist has been fully aware of the extreme demands of this important cycle in the literature for piano. On the one hand there is the overwhelming tradition of the legendary performers of the past - Schnabel, Fischer, Kempff, Arrau - on the other hand the complexity of the actual compositions: The sonatas, written between 1795 and 1822, are Beethoven'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. No other group of pieces allows for a comparably comprehensive overview of his stylistic development.
"For the pianist, it is much more difficult to approach Beethoven than it is with Bach, Mozart and Schubert: You are an interpreter of Bach or Mozart by birth as it were; Beethoven though has to be learned. These 32 sonatas to me always seemed like a suit I still had to grow into."
Thus Schiff recently accounted in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel for his long lasting hesitancy. Today the suit fits: The first four recitals of Schiff's cycle in chronological order, launched in 2004 in major halls in Europe and North-America, were received by the press with unanimous enthusiasm. London's Evening Standard spoke of "sustained magic", while the Neue Zurcher Zeitung greeted a "very contemporary" rendering: "Very close to the musical structure, and miles away from the excitement of romanticism." Critics were particularly taken with Schiff's interpretations of allegedly well-known movements like the introductory Adagio from the "Moonlight" Sonata, both unconventional and absolutely true to the score.
ECM now presents Schiff's long awaited first cycle of the complete 32 sonatas. The pianist opted for live-recordings. The concert situation not only facilitates communicative immediacy, but also creates musical suspense. Andras Schiff uses two different grand pianos: a Bosendorfer, which, as he says himself, "is adequate to the Vienna dialect", which he likes in the early Beethoven, and a Steinway maintained by the internationally renowned piano technicians Fabbrini from Italy. Schiff rates the Steinway as the more objective and powerful instrument he prefers in the more dramatic sonatas. His approach to Beethoven is characterised by utmost conscientiousness: The pianist, who will be touring this fall (with a programme including the Sonatas op. 31 and the "Waldstein" Sonata), not only scrutinizes the composer's manuscripts kept in various libraries and institutes, but also studies the sound and playing techniques of the pianos Beethoven had at his disposal.
The recordings are made at Schiff's recitals in the Zurich Tonhalle, a concert venue which is famous for its outstanding acoustics. Starting in October 2005, the complete cycle will be released on ECM New Series in eight volumes. The Sonatas will be issued in chronological order as single or double albums respectively.
Ludwig van Beethoven's first Piano Sonatas op. 2 Nos. 1 to 3, written in 1795 when the composer was 25 years old, mark a debut of stunning confidence. Basically holding on to the tradition of their dedicatee Joseph Haydn who had been Beethoven's teacher in composition during his first time in Vienna, the op. 2 sets new standards right away. The four-movement layout is introduced as new model, with the third movement already developing into the typical Beethoven Scherzo.
Beethoven's technique of working with small and seemingly inconspicuous motifs is evident right from the start. Unlike Mozart and Haydn the young composer searches for expressive extremes: The finale of the first sonata is marked "prestissimo". Each of the sonatas exhibits a distinctive individual character; each explores a different aspect of piano writing.
The first one in f minor, not much longer than a quarter of an hour, demonstrates utter concentration, its initial movement being a prime example of sonata form. The second in A major is lyric, playful and full of humour, while the final C major piece displays elegant and daring virtuosity that brings the sonata close to concerto writing.
The fourth sonata op. 7 in E-flat major, composed 1796/97 is his second longest, surpassed only by the monumental "Hammerklavier" Sonata op. 106. Dedicated to his young pupil, Countess Babette von Keglevics, the piece was first published under the title "Grande Sonate". Rightly so: Its dimensions and impassioned gesture demonstrate a symphonic ambition.
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Finding the Language for Each Note
The conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow designated Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas as the"New Testament" in the repertoire of the instrument. Is this monumental cycle still of such binding force in our time?
Certainly. The sonatas have lost none of their relevance and freshness. Mind you, they constantly have to be interpreted with renewed vigour - or to put it more precisely, their individual character has to be grasped. For my own part, I deliberately waited until comparatively recently before dedicating myself to such an enormous task. Whereas the works of Bach or Mozart, for instance, often seemed to me like virgin territory, with Beethoven I feel as though I'm confronted with a strong history of interpretation that stretches back as far as Liszt.
The history and tradition of Beethoven interpretation could certainly inhibit the pianist of today - as though a great deal, and perhaps everything, had already been said.
Of course, such restraints can't entirely be dismissed. On the other hand, once you become deeply involved in the musical texts you soon realize the secrets and challenges that still lie hidden in them. As a child I often heard the "Waldstein"-Sonata, without it making much of an impression on me - that was probably due to unsatisfactory performances. Whenever I play the piece today I'm overwhelmed by the revolutionary power of its enormous canvas. The "Moonlight' - Sonata could provide us with another example. Beethoven instructs that the entire first movement should be played "senza sordino" - that's to say with the sustaining pedal applied throughout, so that the whole instrument resonates. Most performers ignore the direction, yet if one takes the trouble to read the text correctly and perform the piece accordingly, the music sounds entirely new.
In Beethoven the music's sonority and dynamics are expanded, as is the music's rhythmic energy. Where do you see the differences between him and his predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart?
We shouldn't forget that Beethoven had already appeared in public in Bonn, and then from 1792 onwards in Vienna, as a great improviser and virtuoso. So the expressive depth of his playing informed his composing right from the start. Like Haydn - and in contrast to Mozart - Beethoven starts with tiny cells and motifs that define the thematic structure of his material. Whereas Mozart creates melodies and allows them to unfold at length, Beethoven lays greater emphasis on surprising harmonic transformations of monothematic material. In addition - and again in contrast to Mozart, but in a sort of kinship with Haydn - there are several two-movement sonatas in Beethoven. Again: with Beethoven we find a sort of earthbound humour, whereas in Mozart we hear floating, faraway merriment, so to speak. Again: with Mozart the slow movements generally unfold at no more extreme tempos than "Andante"or"Andantino". Compared with that, Beethoven often writes "Adagio" or "Largo" - the music becomes solemn. Finally, Haydn certainly served Beethoven as a model in his experiments in tonality and harmonic change. But of course Beethoven far surpasses Haydn in terms of virtuosity and orchestral aplomb.
Mozart composed with the voice of song; Beethoven is more orientated towards speaking, or even rhetorical, gestures?
That's right. You could say Beethoven writes prose, while Mozart favours poetry. In this respect, I would even say that the stylistic line leads from Haydn to Beethoven on the one hand, and from Mozart to Schubert on the other, in terms of their musical nature. On the other hand, Beethoven admired Mozart deeply: his admiration for Mozart's c-minor Piano Concerto is documented, and is expressed in his own Concerto in c minor. But whereas Mozart seldom ventures into extremes of expression, tempo and dynamics, the young Beethoven already leads us into a new world of heightened emotions. The finale of the first piano sonata in f minor op. 2/1 already carries the heading of "Prestissimo".
Like his string quartets, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas encompass an entire life's work - they form what you might call a central theme in his output.
Absolutely. And we can only marvel at the way this life's work continually fans out into different constellations. From the op. 2 sonatas onwards we find an enormous variety of character- passion side by side with lyrical relaxation, concert pieces side by side with more capricious compositions. Among the innovations Beethoven introduces are long drawn-out legato phrases, an enlargement in sheer volume of sound, the frequent many-voiced chords, the "associated" voices and notes. Soon the radius of the instrument becomes too narrow for him, so that his purely pianistic style of writing is broadened towards the direction of orchestral colours. Take, for instance, the opening movement of the "Pathetique" - Sonata: it has the effect of a piano transcription with orchestral colours. Finally, as a result of the speech-like process of his manner of composing, we hear in Beethoven an urgency of articulation, emphasised by polyphonic structures: right from the start, the element of declamation comes strongly to the fore.
Would it be possible to find - quite apart from the division into periods - a scheme of classification for the output of sonatas that could be of interpretative help?
I doubt it. Of course we rightly distinguish between the early period from op. 2 to op. 28, then the middle phase from op. 31 to the "Les Adieux" - Sonata op. 81 a, and finally - from the somewhat Janus-faced Sonata op. 90-the late works up to op. 111. But on the other hand, within these groupings surprising perspectives are always being opened up. Beethoven never thinks in a schematic way - even in the way he treats the recapitulation in relation to the exposition. When he puts three sonatas together under a single opus number, which would also have corresponded with his publishers' demands, he presents enormous contrasts within the triptych. Of course over and above such differentiations we also find unique high-points-for instance, the "Largo e mesto" of the Sonata op. 10/3, the revolutionary introduction to the 'Pathetique", and a little later the funeral march from the A-flat-major Sonata op. 26 which so captivated Chopin, and many other examples. As a result, the performer has to convey the meaning of every note: perhaps that's where the greatest challenge lies.
Your performance of the cycle proceeds chronologically. Where do you see the links between the first four sonatas, and also their difficulties?
First of all, a "mixed" programme would certainly have been possible, as I did, for instance, with Schubert. However, with Beethoven it seems important to me to show the encyclopaedic logic of his development, and that's only possible in a chronological reflection of the creative process. As far as the first three sonatas are concerned, which the somewhat unwilling pupil dedicated to his very sympathetic mentor Joseph Haydn, what's immediately striking from an objective point of view is their unprecedented brilliance. In them we hear the virtuoso presenting himself to the public. Extraordinarily different moods rub shoulders with each other in this triptych, and the performer has to deal with them intellectually, emotionally and technically. The grand, long and wonderfully "pastoral" Sonata op. 7 is already utterly individual, and stands alone. The ascending arpeggio motion at the start of the f-minor Sonata op. 2/1 already signals a highly self-conscious beginning. More than that, this sonata presents a drama. The key is apt for dramatic expression - we have only to think of the later "Appassionata", or the String Quartet op. 95. The ascending climb of the main subject - in the manner of the so-called "Mannheim rocket"- signals iron determination. The technique of developing several motifs out of a single thematic complex echoes Haydn, and it lends the music great concision. The inverted shape of the subsidiary theme introduces a moment of plaintiveness. What's also interesting is the way Beethoven carries out bold changes in register between the voices in the development section, and generally varies the motivic and dynamic hues. In short, this strikes me as "dangerous"and unruly music.
On the other hand, the slow movement has a more conventional feel, even in relation to the subsequent slow movements.
Yes, though it intentionally forms a moment of repose. But at the same time the groups of thirds that underlay the middle section disrupt the purely pianistic writing: we should be able to hear orchestral sounds in them. The following minuet isn't at all inoffensive in effect, but questioning and secretive, and in the "fortissimo" unison quavers even openly menacing. The answer is provided by the"prestissimo"finale - a sort of perpetuum mobile on the edge of the abyss, whose lyrical middle section makes the return of the wild hunt still more oppressive. Thus this first sonata really forms a highly dramatic upbeat to Beethoven's output of sonatas. Incidentally all four movements are written in the home tonality - a comparative rarity in Beethoven.
In comparison, the two following works are quite different in mood: the A-major Sonata lyrical and humorous, the C-major brilliantly virtuosic.
Here the dramaturgy of the groups of three works - we have only to think of the later triptychs of op. 10 and op.31 - is already vividly apparent. Certainly, the A-major Sonata op. 2/2 exudes cheerful wit, and its last two movements have a graceful style that harks back to Haydn and Mozart. But let's not be too hasty: we shouldn't forget the huge contrasts-for instance the humorously "dissenting" fortissimo gestures in the opening movement, as well as the contrapuntal, and pianistically very awkward development section; or the friction between "legato"and "staccato", the sudden pauses. Beethoven manipulates the blurred relationship between expectation and surprise very cannily, and already here the music seldom proceeds in a way that would be in accordance with its preceding "plot".
Certainly not in the slow movement of this A-major Sonata - the first "Largo appassionato".
It's no longer a "tempo ordinario", but a strong indication of character. Just how logically Beethoven proceeds is indicated by the fact that the element of passion only gradually achieves expression in the dynamics and the thickening of the texture. And again, the layout isn't "pianistic", but orchestral: we have only to think of the fortissimo reprise of the theme in the minor from bar 58 onwards. The third movement isn't so much conceived as a minuet, but as a scherzo. Against its dance-like witty elegance Beethoven sets the restless "minore" middle section, with its threatening sforzati. The finale encompasses still stronger contrasts. On the one hand the "grazioso" rondo theme itself with its written-out improvisatory quality, and on the other the abrupt staccato march-theme of the minor-mode episode: "Beauty and the Beast", you could say! The ending, fading away into silence, is wonderfully understated.
Once again, the C-major Sonata op. 2/3 shows a new kind of writing. Is it a nod towards the virtuosity of Beethoven the pianist?
Absolutely. I see it very much as a perform-ance-piece,aimed at an audience. You could call it a "sonata concertante". The chords, the broken double-octaves, the broken-chord passages at the start of the development - all this writing is powerfully brilliant. The cadenza in the opening movement, which begins so surprisingly with an atmospheric and romantic wave of A-flat-major, underlines the concerto-like elan. The E-major slow movement is also very wide-ranging. It is restlessly unfolding confessional music, once more in the richness of its orchestral "expansions", in the mournful song of its middle section, and in the operatic-style recitative interjections just before the end. The scherzo and finale resume the energetic mood: Beethoven as unrivalled master of the instrument? Not only that. To me, the outer sections of the extremely witty scherzo are somehow like ensemble music. The trio, with its "rolling" quaver triplets, certainly represents stormy piano writing, and the nuances of its dynamics must be precisely observed.The "Allegro assai"finale places more emphasis on the character of a piano concerto. By the way, it shouldn't be played too quickly: the semiquavers from bar 8 onwards give the tempo. The figures in thirds moving in opposite directions in the extensive lead-in to the chorale theme, which almost anticipates the chorale from the finale of Brahms's f-minor Sonata, display a new and extremely difficult kind of keyboard technique. The long chains of trills in the closing pages also demand special mention: again Beethoven introduces a new type of layout, and perhaps it's not by chance that trills play a prominent role in other C-major works - both the"Waldstein"-Sonata op. 53 and the "Arietta" of op. 111.
Only two years later, that's to say in 1796-7, Beethoven once again composed a work of new dimensions with the E-flat-major Sonata op. 7, which is exceeded in length only by the "Hammerklavier" - Sonata op. 106.
It's a piece that lies a whole world further on. What's so extraordinary is the multiplicity not only of its expression, but also of its dramatic conception: just think of the "composed" pauses in the slow movement, or the lyrical moments in the last two movements which anticipate Schubert, the powerful modulations in the first movement's development section whose driving energy offers us a glimpse of Beethoven as an active pianist, as it were: octaves that have to be played legato, widely spaced chords, polyphonic intensifications, and a symphonic heightening of tension in the "drum rolls" of the coda.
Edwin Fischer associated the timbre of the work with a summer landscape.
That's not altogether wrong, though literary metaphors can never do justice to pieces like this. Of course in the development section of the opening movement, the point where the joyfully urgent main theme has changed into the strident and turbulent minor evokes the atmosphere of a storm. And of course the cantabile scherzo, which incidentally for the first time begins without an upbeat, has pastoral features - almost a landler-like open-air feeling. Again, the basic atmosphere of the rondo - "Poco Allegretto e grazioso" - is, so to speak, relaxed in an exalted way. On the other hand, that deeply-felt "Largo, con gran espressione", with its question-and-answer dialectic, its oppressive pauses, and the enormous tension of its contrasting registers, could in no way be restricted to an "exterior view", and the same would be true of the eerie, subterranean, menacing "minore" section of the third movement. To put it another way, what Beethoven introduces here renders any unambiguous attribution quite useless.
At least two "events"call for further comment. I'm thinking - in the finale - of the violent middle section, and then of the modulation near the end from the home key of E-flat into E major.
I don't take that c-minor storm, with its full-blooded chords above a swirl of demi-semi-quavers in the bass, completely seriously: its function is as a sort of humoristic and morbid contrast to the lyricism of the remainder of the piece. As in the Sonata op. 2/2, or later in the opening movement of the Sonata op. 54, the music's space is invaded by an element of grotesquery -"Beauty and the Beast", or "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde". That's true also of the coda, which takes up the same figuration, but resolves it in a gentle and becalmed E-flat major. As far as the modulatory change of direction into E major is concerned, for me this is perhaps the most beautiful moment of the Sonata altogether. Haydn's late E-flat-major Sonata could serve as a sort of forerunner, with its slow movement written in E major. Beethoven goes still further, and the miracle takes place within a couple of bars, as though behind a veil, with the rondo theme undergoing a transfiguration into something altogether ethereal.
- Andras Schiff in conversation with Martin Meyer