“Beethoven’s five sonatas for piano and cello show in a nutshell the same evolution that the 32 piano sonatas show,” said András Schiff recently, in an American radio interview. “You have this wonderful young lion Beethoven in the opus 5 sonatas, you have the opus 69, the A major, which stands in the middle of his life, and then you have these wonderful two works, opus 102, which are at the gates of the late style, the last phase. And these are in a way experimental works, but fully crystallized.”
András Schiff’s decision to record Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello is characteristic for a musician who has set himself the challenge of undertaking many complete cycles of works in his concert life. Recitals and special cycles including the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Bartók have long been an important part of his activities. A special focus in 2004, for instance, has been performance of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order. For Schiff, this is a matter of “curiosity, and trying to see connections, to see the development and evolution of a composer in a certain genre. It’s a learning process I would like to share with my listeners.”
The works for piano and cello are realized here with Miklós Perényi. “There is a great affinity between us, coming from the same country and the same city, Budapest.” Five years his senior, Perényi’s status as “a wunderkind, a child prodigy” was a local legend when Schiff was growing up. Subsequently, Perényi was to become the favourite pupil of Pablo Casals; for András Schiff, his countryman is “the greatest cellist alive today”. Pianist and cellist have been chamber music partners for a long time now, intensifying their musical relationship during Schiff’s decade-long directorship of the Musiktage Mondsee and playing concerts together around the world.
There is no shortage of repertoire for cello and piano today, but when Beethoven wrote his opus 5 sonatas in 1796, at the age of 25, the instrumentation was still considered novel. Schiff feels that these are Beethoven’s “first very brilliant compositions”. In the opus 5 works, however, the cello and piano are not yet equal partners: “With all respect to the cello, these are very virtuoso piano parts that Beethoven played, these were really show pieces for himself. And the cello part is of course very demanding and very important but the piano carries the weight of the drama.” This puts a responsibility on a pianist: “You have to be not overpowering while still keeping the force and the weight.” The opus 5 pieces are distinct in character. Opus 5/1 sets out “to entertain in a very noble way. It’s youthful, this is a young Beethoven, and it’s full of life and also full of humour;” Opus 5/2 is “very dramatic and very dark in colour”, at least until its concluding rondo where the sun breaks through the clouds.
By the time Beethoven wrote the A major Sonata op. 69, in the winter of 1807/8, he was already on the other side of his so-called “middle period”, and in between the composing of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. His writing for the combination of cello and piano “had also evolved radically,” as Martin Meyer writes in the liner notes for this collection. Opus 69 proceeds dialectically; it is created out of contrasts that seem finally obliterated by the motoric energy of the concluding Allegro vivace. Meyer: “From the composer’s own declarations one could aptly cite here his expressed desire that his work be marked solely by a constant advance toward something new and different.”
In 1815 Beethoven composed the Sonatas Op. 102, the first of which he described as a “free Sonata”, meaning “that one should no longer try to rationalize the logic of its unconventional structure” (Meyer). Schiff describes the fugue in the final movement of Op. 102/2, as “still a puzzle after almost 200 years”. Its ‘modernity’ is extraordinary: “It’s still giving a hard time to listeners and performers because it makes no compromises. It’s very tough, yet it is beautifully conceived, it’s perfectly written. When we started this with Miklós Perényi, we really analyzed it, and sometimes just played it really slowly, just enjoying every moment and every little corner of it.”
Completing the double-CD programme are four works played less often: three sets of “Variations” for cello and piano from the “early” period, based respectively on themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute and Handel’s Judas Maccabeaus, and the “Horn Sonata” Op. 17, which was written originally for Bohemian waldhorn virtuoso Giovani Punto, who premiered the work together with Beethoven in 1800. The composer later revised the horn part for cello. (ECM Records)