András Schiff Plays Beethoven



I’m a big fan of András Schiff and admire his artistry in a wide variety of repertoire. He’s at home in Bach and Mozart and Janacek and Smetana and Bartok and Haydn, to name only a few, and at his best he is a wonder to hear. A few years ago I heard his rendition of the Emperor on the radio and didn’t really care for what I heard. Perhaps Beethoven wasn’t his cup of tea, I thought. (Of course, Bernard Haitink may have had a deleterious influence on his playing.) No biggie, there’s plenty of other music out there. But then earlier this year I picked up his recording of the Cello Sonatas with Miklos Perenyi and discovered that he can play Beethoven. So when I learned he would undertake the sonata cycle, well, my interest was piqued. The question in my mind before hearing his new (expensive) twofer of Beethoven’s first four sonatas was thus: Would he sound more like his pairing with Haitink or Perenyi?

Alas, it’s more like the former. This recording, stemming from one recital on March 7, 2004, never really catches fire. And I’m afraid that’s too polite for some stretches. I’ll just go in order. The first sonata really encapsulates the problems, and one need listen no further than the first movement to hear the problems. Sure, the basic tempo is superbly judged, and Schiff’s fine tone and nicely graded touch all sound promising, and there’s even a nice rhythmic drive, but it’s the little things that ultimately detracts one’s attention. His accents, his rubato, his phrasing: all can be fussy and, on occasion, stiff. Sometimes it’s minor and one listens on, sometimes it’s really awkward – like between 4’45” and 4’47” – and one wonders why such interpretive devices were used. I figured the Adagio would be stronger, but it’s beset by the same problems, and it’s a bit rushed to boot. The Menuetto sounds like a continuation of the Adagio with unnecessary embellishments, and the Prestissimo conclusion is just too deliberate sounding. Oh, and it has the other problems, too.

Maybe he wasn’t warmed up for the opener, I figured, so I pressed on. The long opening movement (over 11’) doesn’t offer a respite. It’s too deliberate pretty much throughout, and too stiff, too. Schiff applies a personalized (or willful, if you prefer) rubato that doesn’t help, though he’s better in the livelier sections. The Largo, here sounding more an Adagio, sounds a bit clunky at times, almost as if Schiff has some memory lapses or just isn’t comfortable with the music. Around 4’45” in, he does turn up the heat, as it were, though his tone becomes a bit strained and unattractive (well, by Schiff’s standards, anyway). Fortunately, both the Scherzo and concluding Rondo offer glimpses of what is possible with this composer-interpreter combination. The Scherzo is pure charm: light, rounded, soft, yet rhythmically lively, it really delivers. The concluding movement offers more of the same, with Schiff’s rubato here perfectly judged and executed, and even a few less than perfectly secure passages can’t dampen my enthusiasm for the playing.

The exemplary playing soon gives way to problematic playing; the third sonata opens in reticent fashion, with odd pauses to make it less successful yet. Things improve in the louder, more boisterous passages, and later on Schiff is more graceful, but he never completely shakes that reticence. Some misjudged, clunky playing also pops up, and overall there’s a disjointed feel to the whole thing. The Adagio fares much better, sounding flowing and beautiful in the quieter passages and satisfyingly tense and passionate in the louder ones. The Scherzo is largely successful, and displays fine rhythmic drive, but Schiff’s idiosyncrasies reappear. Unfortunately these carry the moment in the too-fussy and too-slow finale.

I had high hopes for the Op 7 sonata. Surely Schiff should nail this, I thought. In the long liner notes he mentions the work’s “pastoral” qualities, and I rather fancy such an approach. But the same issues that plague the preceding three works do the same here. All’s not lost: the opening movement has just about the perfect overall tempo – quick but relaxed, allowing the music to flow. But that choppy phrasing and at times odd rubato reappear. The Largo suffers from something else: It’s beautiful and very well played and largely devoid of the problems of the rest of the recital, but it’s also lifeless. The Allegro, well, it never flows. The concluding Rondo is mostly successful, but even here some fussiness creeps in, whether one considers the odd and unsuccessfully accented arpeggios after 1’30” or the same issues as before. Despite some fine things, the performance just never satisfies.

That’s the problem with the whole set. This isn’t a terrible set, but it’s definitely one only for ardent Beethoven sonata fans or Schiff fans. If one is interested in fine, live recordings, I would say Andrea Lucchesini is the way to go. Anyway, perhaps I’m being too hard on Mr Schiff. It’s as though I expect perfection. But this is Beethoven, so in a way I do. I’m going to relisten to these pieces tomorrow, but I’ll be greatly surprised if I find them much better (or much worse), and overall I have to say I’m a bit disappointed. At least the sound is good.

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