Concert recording April 2006
Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 7, Volume 8
The best for a long time to come.
This is volume VI of Andras Schiff's much praised chronological Beethoven cycle of the complete sonatas recorded live at the Tonhalle Zurich, which will consist of eight volumes on completion. In this set, Schiff covers sonatas from the period between 1804 and 1810, and presents some of the most famous and widely-known works in one place. The extreme variety of Beethoven's forms and conceptions in this period serves to highlight the effectiveness of Schiff's chronological approach.
The programme opens with the two-movement Op.54 sonata, which combines lyricism and drama in an incredible emotional range. Schiff's touch is assured right from the start, with subtlety and articulation ensuring that the textures of the music shimmer like opalescent glass. Nor does he shy away from the crucial theatricality of Beethoven's writing, as the recurrence of the weighty descending bass line in the Allegretto shows - again, by contrast, highlighting the transparency of the Bach-like imitative and contrapuntal writing elsewhere.
My main comparison has been with another complete set, that of Daniel Barenboim on EMI. This was recorded in the 1960s in Abbey Road and still sounds very good, having been my CD reference for complete cycles for many years now, a place previously held by Wilhelm Kempff in a big heavy box of 1950s mono DG LPs. I do have to say that Schiff fair blows the young Barenboim out of the water with his live recordings. When I came to compare the two players, I was sometimes confronted with Barenboim's now seemingly relatively gentle, almost feminine approach. Where Schiff tightens in intensity through clarity and articulation, Barenboim often spreads things out to give more atmosphere. True, his 'Appassionata' is filled with fiery playing and extremes of contrast, but Schiff somehow connects the soft passages to those tempestuous outbursts by maintaining a fearsome grip on the former: still giving us the shock and thrills of Beethoven's extravagance, but never allowing the pools of limpid lyricism to stray from the taut path of a narrative which fate decreed must include both at once. His second movement, Andante con moto holds onto that forward pulse, bringing in that chorale and its variations at 6:38 to Barenboim's 8:05. Schiff has been criticised earlier in this cycle for finicky attention to detail almost to the point of mannerism, but I like his extreme clarity in this and other movements - it somehow seems to bring us closer to Beethoven, the magnificence of the rendition unencumbered by too much 'personality' from the pianist. This is far from saying that Schiff allows his character to be effaced by the music or that his performances are any less than distinctive and, once heard, instantly recognisable. The power that comes through does seem more to be that of the 'great composer' than that of a 'great pianist', for which I for one am grateful.
The substantial booklet notes take the form of a conversation between Andras Schiff and Martin Meyer, illustrating Schiff's thought on the music, the chronological approach with its stylistic references and removal of the stereotypes of programming - the more usual placing of the 'Appassionata' as the last work in a recital, for instance. Schiff also emphasises the importance of the inner pulse, even when Beethoven's creative pots and pans are flying all over the place: "Creative freedom [should not] degenerate into a tempo-less interpretation".
Schiff's insight of course covers all of the works on this disc, and includes admissions to the technical difficulties in virtuoso movements such as the Allegro vivace of the Sonata in F sharp minor Op.78. Schiff also manages to exploit the humour in this movement however, which becomes a character piece in its own right - full of breathtaking figurations and harmonic twists and turns. Unfatigued, either as performer or listener, we can revel in Beethoven's calling card as a performer, the extrovert and witty Sonata in G major Op.79. Schiff has great fun with the dance-like rhythms in this piece, allowing its directness of musical language free rein, giving us all a break from the complex intensities of the other sonatas.
The final sonata, Op. 81a, appropriately named 'Les Adieux', or rather 'Das Lebewohl' by Beethoven himself, is dedicated "On the departure of His Imperial Highness the esteemed Archduke Ferdinand". The work as a whole presents a wonderful portrayal of a spiritual state somewhere between that initial farewell, the absence or Abwesenheit in the second movement, and joyful reunion in the finale, Das Wiedersehen. Schiff points out that this piece should not be seen as programme music, but indicates the little leitmotiefs and themes which have an arguable poetic symbolism which would seem to go hand-in-glove with the titles and emotional intention of the music. It may be the power of suggestion, but to my ears these aspects in the piece are brought vividly to life under Schiff's fingers, and I can imagine a contemporary audience 'getting' the references with no difficulty whatsoever.
There are many great Beethoven cycles in the catalogue, and no new version will take anything away from the mastery of pianists such as Gilels or Kempff. In my humble opinion, Andras Schiff's cycle is however one very much for our times, bringing Beethoven with a refreshing directness and interpretative clarity which will make this cycle one of the best for a long time to come. ECM's track record on piano recordings is second to none, and the sound on this release is truly excellent. Live performance has its own sense of brilliance and spontaneity, and while I'm sure there may well have be some 'tidying up' I never once spotted an edit, the audience is entirely silent, and there is no applause anywhere.
- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Andras Schiff's Beethoven cycle, recorded live in chronological order at Tonhalle Zurich, continues to collect critical praise as it moves forward to the later "middle" period. Lorenzo Arruga, writing in Italy's Il Giornale on Volume V (including the three sonatas Op. 31 and the "Waldstein") billed it as "sublime and revelatory", while Philip Clark (Classic FM Magazine) spoke of a rendering that "isn't for the faint-hearted who like their Beethoven all cosy and neat", particularly admiring "bold brushstrokes" and "vivid inner details".
Egon Bezold in Klassik.com pointed at the "extraordinary representation of the overall architecture and expressive variety", and Gramophone's Jed Distler highlighted the "remarkable timbral distinctions, fastidious execution of turns and other ornaments, plus painstakingly differentiated accents, articulation marks and dynamics." Michael Stenger commented in FonoForum: "Schiff achieves clarity and yet a magic of atmospheres which is far away from the tedious pseudo-objectivity many performers offer here. There is great explosiveness but still warm contemplation in the slow movements…Exemplary!" A much more general point was made by Carl Rosman in the International Record Revue: "There is in any case no other pianist on the major recording scene currently bringing such a new and refreshing perspective to these pillars of the repertoire."
Volume VI, including sonatas from the period between 1804 and 1810, offers some of the most famous and widely-known works together with an astonishing variety of forms and concepts, a constellation which, once again, highlights the attractiveness of Schiff's chronological approach: "It provides evidence of a progressive journey which comes to a temporary halt with the completion of the 'Appassionata' in 1805, before continuing again some four years later with the F-sharp major Sonata Op. 78. But Beethoven varies the design of these five sonatas in a wholly adventurous way. The 'Appassionata' is preceded by the two-movement F-major Sonata Op. 54, whose mood is partly song-like, and partly heavily accented. The Op. 78 Sonata takes us into a very lyrical as well as capriciously playful world. On the other hand, the next sonata, Op. 79, whose first movement is headed 'alla tedesca', is generally incisive and extrovert; and finally the 'Les Adieux'-Sonata presents us with a wonderful portrayal of a spiritual state between farewell, absence and joyful reunion."
Increased media attention is to be expected when Schiff's Beethoven cycle on ECM New Series reaches the composer's venerable late works this autumn. It will be completed with two separate volumes on single-CDs containing the sonatas opp. 90, 101 and 106 and opp. 109 to 111 respectively. Future Schiff-releases on ECM will include a new live recording of Bach's complete Partitas. In 2008, Schiff will perform selected Beethoven-programmes in the US (in April and October), in England, Switzerland and Germany.