Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2

András Schiff

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Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 Review

by James Manheim

One way to start with this disc (and the others to come in András Schiff's cycle of Beethoven's sonatas) is to read the interview with Schiff that serves as a set of liner notes. It's dense but exceptionally thoughtful and illuminating -- and the same could be said of Schiff's performances here. In the interview he lays out two operating principles. "For Beethoven," Schiff said, "the piano is a means of realizing 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." He also insists that all the early sonatas be approached on their own terms; they are not in any sense "preliminary exercises for the later works. The difficulty lies in giving voice to each of these types of sonority." With these two principles (and a wealth of other smaller insights) in mind, Schiff produces remarkable new Beethoven interpretations, something one wouldn't have thought possible.

This disc is the second in Schiff's series, covering the three sonatas of Opus 10 through the Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (the "Pathétique"). Take the opening movements of any of the Op. 10 sonatas for an illustration of Schiff's uncanny grasp of texture in Beethoven's thinking. He doesn't do anything radical, doesn't play anything that's not in the score. But he coaxes an incredible range of sounds out of the piano, sounds that haven't been heard before in the early Beethoven sonatas. Sometimes the piano holds back, like a reined-in orchestral string section; sometimes it sounds like a tensely bouncing string quartet. And for an example of Schiff's ability to find the path of Beethoven's musical thought in these early works, hear the little syncopated cadential figure toward the end of the exposition in the Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10/3. Most pianists overdo this passage, treating the top voice's long ascent to high A as a forerunner of the ecstatic quality in Beethoven's later works. Schiff holds the whole passage carefully in check, revealing the long descent that's going on in the left hand and preparing the listener for the ways in which each little atom recurs in the remainder of the movement. A dozen other examples would work as well.

In anything as well thought-out as this, there's bound to be one example of overthinking, and for Schiff it comes in the opening movement of the "Pathétique." Following Charles Rosen and a few other pianists, and disregarding the published score, he expands the repeat of the exposition section to encompassing the opening slow introduction, claiming that this is what Beethoven must have had in mind. This is both historically and musically insupportable. Beethoven at this point in his career was something of a piano star in Vienna, and his publishers were people who had no doubt heard him play the "Pathétique," already one of his most popular works. Even if they had not, is it conceivable that Beethoven, who corresponded voluminously with his publishers and loved to bicker with them like blue-haired ladies go to war with department-store service clerks, would not have raised a ruckus about such a major alteration to his intentions? And beyond these historical considerations is the fact that repeating the slow introduction blunts the considerable shock of its reappearance toward the end of the movement -- one of Beethoven's real coups here. Nevertheless, this disc leaves one waiting breathlessly to hear what Schiff will come up with as he takes on the later monuments among Beethoven's sonatas. DJ warning: in the live recording, it takes several seconds after the beginning of each track for Schiff to start playing.

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