András Schiff BEETHOVEN Sonatas opp. 10 and 13

International press reactions to the first volume of Schiff’s Beethoven cycle released in October 2005 were unanimous in their praise and critics expressed high expectations for the edition as a whole. “If the first volume (superbly recorded and annotated by ECM) is anything to go by, this Beethoven cycle will not only provoke and illuminate but give the lie to those who wonder if there is room for yet another”, wrote Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone while Hugh Canning, in the Sunday Times, drew a similar perspective: “If the results match this volume we are in for a memorable cycle“. And in the German weekly Die Zeit Wolfram Goertz spoke of “an integral that deserves our most thorough attention as the beginning is spectacular”. Le monde de la musique on the other hand quite laconically greeted one of the “great Beethoven interpreters of our time.”
Schiff who early on played and recorded comprehensive cycles of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, has taken his time with Beethoven. Until he was 50, the 32 sonatas marked an obvious gap in his repertoire. The pianist has always emphasized his respect for the extreme demands of this repertoire and its intimidating performance tradition built up by the legendary masters of the past like Schnabel, Fischer, Kempff or Arrau to name but a few. Beethoven’s piano sonatas, written in a fairly steady flow of productiveness between 1795 and 1822, are the composer’s very laboratory. No single opus resembles another; each of them arrives at completely new solutions – in extreme concentration and density. The cycle, which Hans von Bülow once called the pianist’s “New Testament”, forms the central compendium of Beethoven’s creative work and no other group of pieces allows for a comparably detailed overview of his stylistic development.
Schiff’s concept to record the sonatas live and on two different pianos has found much respect with reviewers. In an interview for the Swiss magazine Musik und Theater Schiff again outlined his unconventional approach: “I’m fully convinced that vivid performances are possible only in front of an audience. I obviously don’t share Glenn Gould’s opinion that concerts are superfluous and that work in the recording studio is so much more important. Being an artist you live for those very moments when music really happens.” Schiff plays each programme in 15 different cities before recording it in the Zürich Tonhalle, famous for its outstanding acoustics. “I really feel that my performances become more mature from concert to concert. The repetitions are a very valuable lesson.” As to his alternating use of a Steinway and a Bösendorfer, both maintained by the renowned piano technician Fabbrini in Italy, Schiff emphasizes Beethoven’s versatility as a composer and his great range of sonorities: “Most of his piano sonatas are rather lyrical and smooth pieces – they are poetic, philosophical, sometimes even humorous creations that don’t ‘bite’ in the way the ‘Appassionata’, the ‘Pathétique’ or the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata do. They have nothing in common with the cliché of the heroic and dramatic Beethoven. That’s why I prefer the Bösendorfer in these works.”
Schiff has repeatedly claimed that Beethoven’s early sonatas need to be taken absolutely seriously as they offer highest compositional quality right from the start with op.2. The sonatas op. 10, written between 1796 and 1798 when the composer was not yet thirty years old, form a group of subtly interrelated masterworks. In Schiff’s view they are pieces for “connoisseurs and amateurs”, each of them displaying its own clearly defined character while the famous ‘Grande Sonate Pathétique’ dating from 1798/99 introduces a dramatic attitude and a symphonic writing that was to become a central trait of some of Beethoven’s most important works.

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