Andras Schiff's ongoing recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, an ambitious and challenging set in every way, are a bit hard to sum up in their particulars. The best generalization might be to say that they are indeed particular -- Schiff's are the kind of interpretations that are presented with the aid of a detailed interview in the booklet, and, indeed, backed up by lectures and discussions the pianist has held in major music capitals. There are a few more general characteristics that show up in this group of sonatas from the end of Beethoven's first period -- Schiff explicitly embraces the periodization, and the value of chronologically running through the sonatas, placing great stress in his playing and thinking on ideas that Beethoven returned to in multiple works. Schiff doesn't really see a Romantic Beethoven, and part of his mission is to strip away the layers that Liszt and Chopin, and their successors, added to perceptions of Beethoven's piano music. His tone is briskly analytical. And, although he is far from being a historical-performance specialist -- the scope of his interpretations is large, and he uses the piano's full dynamic range -- he has borrowed one thing from the fortepianists who play Beethoven (or just hit on it independently): he focuses on details of articulation and sonority, rather than letting these aspects get lost in the broad sweep of form and expression. Schiff is unromantic, and rather relentlessly precise, but certainly not plain. His is an art of intensification of the music's local sounds and shapes. Consider the opening movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata, where Schiff keeps things moving and adds a thick layer with the sustaining pedal -- it is not moonlight that is being depicted but shadows in fog. (The title "Moonlight" was not Beethoven's own.) In the central movement of the same sonata, Schiff plays up the ländler-like qualities of the middle section and turns it into a real country dance. Schiff speaks several times of the young Beethoven as something of a radical experimentalist, and the Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27/1, comes out especially nicely in his hands -- as a constant series of textural and rhythmic surprises. The funeral march in the Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26, the predecessor to the Chopin funeral march that insinuated itself into nearly universal consciousness, is treated inwardly, ruminatively -- for Schiff many of Beethoven's sound effects are "psychological," which is an odd word to use in connection with Beethoven. The large "Pastoral" Sonata, the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, is less lyrical than usual in Schiff's reading, but masterfully knit together out of small bright threads of sonority. Schiff is never orthodox and often surprising, sometimes uncomfortably surprising but always possessed of the erudition and the chops to compel your attention, and, in the end, is not going to close the book on Beethoven interpretation, but is opening new ones.
Review by James Manheim
|Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major ("Funeral March"), Op. 26|
|Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major ("Quasi una fantasia"), Op. 27/1|
|Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2|
|Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major ("Pastoral"), Op. 28|