A Mixed Bag of Beethoven from András Schiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: András Schiff (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 26.11.12. (GD)

Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor Op. 49 No.1
Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major Op.49 No.2
Piano Sonata No. 11 in B flat major Op. 22
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major Op. 26
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major Op.27 No. 1 ‘Quasi una fanatasia’
Piano Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor Op 27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major Op. 28 ‘Pastoral’

András Schiff’s recent recordings of all the Beethoven piano sonatas (which I have not heard) and his many Beethoven sonata recitals have received almost unanimously glowing reviews and with this in mind I was anticipating much fine Beethoven playing tonight. And, indeed, Schiff’s playing was mostly very distinguished. But the overall impression I had  was something of a mixed bag.

The opening Andante of Op. 49 No. 1 in G minor seemed quite perfunctory. All the notes were there, but I felt the need for a sharper delineation. Also it failed to emerge as if taken in one breath so to speak. Similarly the second movement Rondo Allegro in 6/8 time seemed to merely chug along with no real sense of rhythmic pulsation, which this scherzo-like invention demands. In old fashioned terms it lacked ‘wit’ and ‘sparkle’. Similarly the second sonata of Op.49 in G major was played in what sounded like too slow a tempo, dragging at times. And the second ‘menuetto’ movement was devoid of  all contrast with the previous movement, again lacking any sense of wit and charm. The pedal point theme of the C major trio was bereft of anything approaching folk-based lilt.

Schiff’s relatively straight-forward approach for the opening movement of the more expansive Op. 22 Sonata in B flat paid off in the first movement Allegro con brio. As tonight’s programme writer pointed out, Donald Tovey described it as the ‘most conventional of all Beethoven sonatas calling the first movement a ‘ locus classicus for masterful perfunctoriness’. But I had no real sense of the second movement Adagio con molto expressione in E flat unfolding in its 9/8 time register  as it should have, particularly in its sequences of broad melody. Also, I had little sense tonight of much co-ordination between a chordal left hand and an expressive ‘cantabile’ right hand, particularly in this movement. The menuetto and Rondo finale were quite adequate but again, I would have welcomed more dramatic/lyrical contrast, and  more of a sense of improvisation, particularly in the menuetto.

With the Sonata in A flat Op. 26 things started to improve. In fact, in the second half of the recital, particularly with the’Moonlight’ Sonata  and the so called ‘Pastoral;’ Sonata, Schiff’s performances took on new dimension, with some excellent playing. He played the second movement scherzo of the sonata in A flat Op. 26 with an almost Mozartian delicacy. There was plenty of virtuoso projection here, but it never degenerated into pianistic display. My only criticism here was what I perceived as a slight lack of boisterous, ironic, humour, so characteristic of many such movements in these sonatas. In the famous third movement funeral march Beethoven inscribed the movement ‘Funeral march in memory of a hero’, but we have no idea of the ‘hero’ he was referring to! Schiff played it in an impressively broad mesured, sustained tempo. The ‘drumroll’ crescendo’s made a powerful effect, but I had little sense of the parody/irony which pianists of the stature of Annie Fischer and Emile Gilels brought to the movement. But Schiff was impressive here in his own way; in the closing Allegro his mercurial touch, full of dazzling shifts in rhythm and tonality, made for a fitting contrast to the funeral march. Similarly, Schiff’s rendition of the ‘Quasi una fantasia’ sonata in E flat Op.27 No.1, was full of insights. He brought out a wonderful singing quality in the opening Andante. And in the Adagio third movement the even rhythm in the bass was superbly judged, as was the concluding rondo with its range of tempo contrasts and brilliant presto coda. The second movement Allegro, really a scherzo, was played in a rhythmically sharp manner. But the movements ‘stark octaves’ and ‘unsettling syncopations’, mentioned by tonight’s programme writer, sounded, to my ears, too ‘straight’. As mentioned above, there is a certain rough, even disturbing Beethovenian humour here, one could even say ‘gallows humour’, which does not seem to register with Schiff. Again listen to Annie Fischer, or even the classic Schnabel recording, to hear what I mean here. The hauntingly beautiful Adagio sostenuto opening of the so called ‘Moonlight’ sonata in C sharp minor Op.27 No.2 (the ‘Moonlight’  nickname is nowhwere mentioned by Beethoven, but it has stuck), found Schiff in  total accord with the music. Schiff is of course a noted Bach interpreter and the parallels between this movement and a meditative Bach prelude were fully resonant tonight. Schiff brought a kind of auratic tone to the music making it sound truly ‘nocturnal’. The D flat major second movement with its undulating harmonies and syncopated rhythms was beautifully contoured by Schiff, making it a poignant contrast to the two outer movements. Schiff inflected the C sharp minor finale with a potent sense of ‘Sturm und Drang’. He played the music as a real Presto agitato. At this speed some of the rushing semiquavers were not as clear as they would sound at a slightly slower tempo. But this was a small price to pay given such frisson and intensity. Schiff articulated the agitated chordal shifts in a masterful fashion.

With regard to the beautiful Sonata in D major Op.28, the nickname ‘Pastoral’ was not given by Beethoven, but by his Hamburg publisher, Cranz. But, as with the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the nickname ‘Pastoral’ seems appropriate to this work with its folk mood and frequent deployment of a rustic sounding ‘drone’ bass. But the sonata also contains more trenchant, dramatic music, which Schiff incorporated with his usual pianistic finesse. The opening Allegro, with its pedal point in the bass with a repeated D, which can be traced throughout the whole movement, was well balanced by Schiff, with subtle phrasing. I listened to this sonata in the recording Annie Fischer made in Budapest, in the late 70’s. The comparison with Schiff was quite fascinating. Fischer plays the opening pedal in the bass  with the repeated D in a far more pronounced way, with much clearer delineation of the D ‘rocking’ theme. Also, Fischer plays the more dramatic development section, with its prominent B minor tone, in a far more thrusting, muscular manner. All this was ‘there’ with Schiff, but everything was much more restrained. I have a slight preference for Fischer here, but both approaches, in their different ways, can be seen as compelling. The Andante in D minor takes the form of a sombre march.  The right hand plays the main legato theme over a staccato bass figure in the left hand, a kind of ‘under-voice’ which keeps threatening something more sinister, and when we consider the contrasting ballad-like middle major key sequence we can see/hear Beethoven again the mood for parody. Schiff phrased this movement with consummate musicianship. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t always feel he managed to negotiate Beethoven’s dark humour, the dying away of the march theme towards the movement’s coda, with plangent notes in the bass register, which Beethoven here, and in other sonatas, liked to compare a to ‘voice speaking from the grave’. Here older pianists, no longer with us, seem to understand and convey this ‘gallows humour’ instinctively;, notably Annie Fischer and Schnabel, but also, and very much, the great French pianist Yves Nat, recorded in Paris in the early 50’s, and long since out of circulation. Schiff articulated the playful contrasts in the third movement scherzo well, relishing the rhythmic play in the four descending F sharps. But I found something  missing  in terms of humourous contrast spiced with dynamic verve. This sense of humour, quite rough humour at times, is so prominent – probably over-characterised – in the Yves Nat recording, that I found myself bursting out with laughter. Something not recommended at a public recital! The bagpipe-like finale  taking the form of a rondo, found Schiff in top form, from the gentle bucolic opening rhythms, to the superb articulation of the rapid figurations reinforcing an accelerating bass rhythm which bring the sonata to its exuberant and humorous close.

I have alluded to older recorded performances from some of the great pianists of the past. But now the sheer volume of CD’s of Beethoven piano sonatas is staggering. – an embarrassment of riches. I would single out for special distinction recordings from Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini and Ronald Brautigam among the living. While not forgetting the likes of dead pianists like: Kempff, Arrau, Serkin, Richter,Gilels, Annie Fischer (probably my favourite of all) – and Yves Nat, for something completely different if it can be tracked down? And Schiff can be added to the list of living pianists quite confidently, despite, or maybe because of my reservations. I now keenly look forward to hearing Schiff’s recent recordings of these endlessly fascinating sonatas.

As a substantial encore Schiff played predictably lucid rendition of the Prelude and Fugue No.5 in D major, from Book Two of Bach’s Well – Tempered Clavier.


Geoff Diggines