ECM now presents Schiff’s long awaited first cycle of the complete 32 sonatas. The pianist opted for live-recordings. The concert situation not only facilitates communicative immediacy, but also creates musical suspense. András Schiff uses two different grand pianos: a Bösendorfer, which, as he says himself, “is adequate to the Vienna dialect”, which he likes in the early Beethoven, and a Steinway maintained by the internationally renowned piano technicians Fabbrini from Italy. Schiff rates the Steinway as the more objective and powerful instrument he prefers in the more dramatic sonatas. His approach to Beethoven is characterised by utmost conscientiousness: The pianist, who will be touring this fall (with a programme including the Sonatas op. 31 and the “Waldstein” Sonata), not only scrutinizes the composer’s manuscripts kept in various libraries and institutes, but also studies the sound and playing techniques of the pianos Beethoven had at his disposal.
The recordings are made at Schiff’s recitals in the Zürich Tonhalle, a concert venue which is famous for its outstanding acoustics. Starting in October 2005, the complete cycle will be released on ECM New Series in eight volumes. The Sonatas will be issued in chronological order as single or double albums respectively.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s first Piano Sonatas op. 2 Nos. 1 to 3, written in 1795 when the composer was 25 years old, mark a debut of stunning confidence. Basically holding on to the tradition of their dedicatee Joseph Haydn who had been Beethoven’s teacher in composition during his first time in Vienna, the op. 2 sets new standards right away. The four-movement layout is introduced as new model, with the third movement already developing into the typical Beethoven Scherzo.
Beethoven’s technique of working with small and seemingly inconspicuous motifs is evident right from the start. Unlike Mozart and Haydn the young composer searches for expressive extremes: The finale of the first sonata is marked “prestissimo”. Each of the sonatas exhibits a distinctive individual character; each explores a different aspect of piano writing.
The first one in f minor, not much longer than a quarter of an hour, demonstrates utter concentration, its initial movement being a prime example of sonata form. The second in A major is lyric, playful and full of humour, while the final C major piece displays elegant and daring virtuosity that brings the sonata close to concerto writing.
The fourth sonata op. 7 in E-flat major, composed 1796/97 is his second longest, surpassed only by the monumental “Hammerklavier” Sonata op. 106. Dedicated to his young pupil, Countess Babette von Keglevics, the piece was first published under the title “Grande Sonate”. Rightly so: Its dimensions and impassioned gesture demonstrate a symphonic ambition.