Pianist Andras Schiff speaks of approaching the Beethoven Sonatas with what he calls “renewed vigor,” and his performances of Beethoven’s earliest published scores in the sonata genre are true to his word. This first installment displays Schiff’s capacities for a searching, intelligent blend of bravura and detailed craftsmanship. The “wonderful and individual” E-flat Sonata, Op. 7, receives one of the glorious readings of our time, passionate and lyrically exalted. Much of the three later movements after the opening Allegro molto e con brio have the character of Schubert’s laendler. Recorded 7 March 2004 at the Zurich Tonhalle, the sonatas proceed chronologically, in order to reflect “the encyclopedic logic of [Beethoven’s] development.”
Even in the early sonatas, we can appreciate Beethoven’s sense of dynamic colors, his ability to evolve several motifs from a single thematic group, his desire to expand the syntax of the keyboard through bold shifts in registration, a tendency to think in orchestral as well as pianistic terms. Listen to the finale of the F Minor, with its savvy alterations of light and dark, the thinning and thickening of textures in bold strokes, exquisitely rendered by Schiff.
Altogether unique in Beethoven’s vocabulary is the Largo con gran espresione from the Op. 7 Sonata, a slow movement which only gradually realizes its tender passions, utilizing pregnant pauses to heighten its effect. As bucolic as Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso seems to be, Schiff permits the undercurrent of grotesquerie, its sudden shift to C Minor, to emerge quite clearly. The set begins explosively enough, the F Minor’s rocket figures and surly modulations all proceeding in brittle, impulsive filigree. All of Schiff’s renditions of Beethoven’s slow movements relish the composer’s cantabile and legato effects, the timbres of which often suggest the influence of Mozart’s wind serenades. The opening of the A Major is a case in point, Schiff’s lovingly juggling the moments of textural clarity and delicacy with a potential for emotional expolosion at any moment.
Beethoven’s capacity for boisterous humor receives equal treatment under Schiff’s law of balancing contrasting affects. From the perky staccati in the F Minor Menuetto to the broad strokes in the Scherzo of the C Major, we are in the presence of a synoptic perspective, something of Dante’s cosmic view, tragedy embroiled in laughter, say in the martial elements in the finale of the A Major, Op. 2, No. 2. Dazzling articulation by Schiff in all parts: he has decided to use the Steinway grand for the brightly lit sonatas, the Boesendorfer for the dark-colored texts.
My only quibble with ECM’s otherwise sterling presentation of Schiff’s new Beethoven cycle is limiting to 31 minutes disc 2. Even to preserve the integrity of the forthcoming Op. 10 as an entity, why could we not have had a set of variations, like the Op. 34 and the Op. 76 to fill out this brilliant sally into one of the pillars of Western musical expression?