Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff begins each day with Bach. I guess you could say, he has Bach for breakfast. For the past three years, however, Beethoven has been his meat and potatoes. Three years ago, Schiff began a series of performances that explore the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in chronological order. ECM Records documented this project with a series of live recordings. The fourth volume in that series has just been released. It features the last three sonatas from Beethoven's early period which ended just after he turned 30 in 1800.
The first thing I noticed about this recording is the sound of the piano. Andras Schiff purposefully chose to perform on a classic Viennese Bosendorfer piano. It's a powerful piano with stronger key action than a Steinway. Its tone is soft and gentle, yet strikingly clear. This instrument allows Schiff to play Beethoven with a creamier, more delicate touch. We hear that right away in the first few notes of the Sonata No. 12. This early work begins with a set of variations. This marks the first time Beethoven opened a sonata with a variation movement. He may have been using Mozart as his model. The third movement of this sonata is a funeral march. The funeral march in Chopin's Sonata No. 2 immediately comes to mind. As it turns out, Chopin's funeral march, written in 1839, was influenced by the one Beethoven composed here. This march was written with a sense of urgency, and Schiff delivers. He produces a somber mood without dragging the tempo. He also enhances the character of the piece by using the full dynamic range of the Bosendorfer piano. As Schiff pounds out the final chords of the first movement, I can almost see Beethoven shaking his fist at fate.
Andras Schiff is a perfectionist: he plays each program in 15 different cities before recording it. "I really feel that my performances get more mature from concert to concert," he explains. "The repetitions are a very valuable lesson." Schiff's repetition pays off in Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. He plays this familiar work so delicately and with such intensity that even if you've heard it a hundred times, you'll want to hear it again and again. Schiff uses plenty of sustaining pedal depicting thick fog rather than clear moonlight.
Beethoven loved nature, and it shows in his Sonata No. 15. Right away in the first movement, this sonata lives up to its nickname of the "Pastoral" sonata. As with the "Moonlight" sonata, Beethoven didn't give this work its nickname. However, Andras Schiff believes the subtitle fits. The "Pastoral" sonata is filled with wide open spaces of sound. Some pianists, like Alfred Brendel, take a lyrical, dramatic approach to this work. Andras Schiff on the other hand, avoids expressive pauses. He keeps the tempo moving like the gentle rowing of a Venetian gondolier.
When asked why he's recorded his Beethoven sonatas live in the Zurich Tonhalle, Schiff explained that only in front of an audience are vivid performances truly possible. "Being an artist," he adds, "you live for those very moments when music really happens." Andras Schiff's fourth volume of Beethoven sonatas takes us half way through the composer's cycle. With these brilliant performances he accomplishes the goal of any good performer. He leaves us wanting more.