Author Topic: András Schiff Plays Beethoven  (Read 3909 times)

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Offline Todd

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András Schiff Plays Beethoven
« on: June 03, 2007, 03:19:26 PM »
Since I'll probably get at least one or two more volumes in this series, I decided to repost my comments on the first three volumes before posting comments on the fourth, which will be the second post.

Volume 1

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.

Volume 2

In the liner notes “interview” for the second volume of the LvB sonatas, András Schiff states that the Op 2 sonatas, along with the Hammerklavier, are the most difficult works for him in terms of technical requirements and memorization.  Interesting, I thought.  Maybe that’s why I was somewhat disappointed in the first installment in his cycle.  The first few sonatas just ain’t his thing.  Anyway, I figured I should give the second installment a listen.  Another batch of four sonatas is on tap, specifically the Op 10 sonatas and the Pathetique.  Should make for some potentially interesting listening, I figured.

It makes for more than that.  From the very first bars, this disc contains some decidedly unique Beethoven playing, especially in the Op 10 works.  The first Op 10 sonata displays one trait that reappears throughout: the rising arpeggios that open the work start a bit slowly then speed up.  Slow then fast.  That’s the trick.  Anyway, the second run through is faster overall.  Slow than fast again.  He uses this device so much that one will either find it an annoying mannerism or an intriguing interpretive device.  I fall into the latter category.  But that’s because there’s more than that.  Schiff’s playing is varied slightly in tone, but much more in dynamics, and, especially, in tempo.  He’s constantly playing things differently.  The sound is a bit bright (I’m guessing he uses a Bösendorfer for the opener), and occasionally some of the left hand playing – which is just as varied as the right – is a bit muddied.  While his focus on minute details can come close to detracting from the big picture, he keeps all together well enough and maintains nice forward drive.  The Adagio molto offers something else.  The whole movement has a slow-ish overall pulse, but it benefits from Schiff’s delectable low volume playing.  His piano and pianissimo playing contains myriad subdivisions, and his constant toying with tempo adds a sense of “what’s he gonna do next?” suspense, if you will.  He also deploys pauses subtly and effectively.  At times the movement sounds static, but he manages to maintain tension.  And he also makes the movement sound broader in expressive scope than may be strictly proper in early Beethoven.  To end the piece, Schiff adopts a faster overall tempo for the Prestissimo, but he uses that slow-fast thing again.  He also very prominently deploys something else he relies on a lot – unique accenting.  Individual notes or portions of larger figures will be accented in a unique way.  Overall, there is a lot to take in.  This is a rethought version of the work.

The second sonata offers more of the same, though in a more lighthearted way.  The Allegro sounds slow(-ish) and definitely soft at the open, but quickly Schiff picks things up a bit – but not a huge amount – and again deploys all the tricks noted above.  At times it almost sounds precious – perhaps it even does – but somehow Schiff makes all his innumerable little touches work.  The piece still manages to flow pretty well, too.  Somewhat ironically, the Allegretto is comparatively tauter and tenser – though it’s not really intense – and sounds sober and serious.  Yet it, too, works.  The Presto (with repeat, thankfully) has that slow-fast thing, but Schiff also manages to stretch out the opening material just a little bit.  There’s forward drive to the playing, and everything sounds appropriately fun, and when Schiff takes the repeat, he plays it a little bit faster and a little bit stronger, with some nice, weighty left-hand playing.  This little work is definitely filled to the brim with Schiff’s ideas.

But it is the third sonata that overflows with ideas.  Everything in this work sounds as though Schiff spent long days or weeks (or longer!) reconsidering the music to come up with a fresh way to play it.  Not that one can tell in the opening bars.  Schiff plays it straight, with a conventional tempo and decent strength and drive.  But he quickly starts peppering the playing with all manner of personal touches.  Most prominent and definitely unique among them is how he splits the first four notes in a repeated figure so that the first two ascend quickly then, after a miniscule pause, the second two descend quickly before the rest of the figure is played.  At first I thought he may have rushed the passage, but then when the figure returns, so does the device.  One sort of listens in half disbelief.  How dare Schiff do that!  This is Beethoven!  What does he think he’s doing?  Well, I like it!  Fresh thinking and fresh playing.  The Largo, well, it too offers some new ideas.  It starts out slow and insistent and sounds almost monotone for a while.  Then the accenting and rubato and dynamic changes appear – all over the place – and the piece comes to life.  It’s not intense, it’s not tragic.  But Schiff does bring an almost operatic theatricality to the movement.  Some may find it contrived, and it can’t really be described as “heartfelt,” but it sure is captivating.  The brief Menuetto sounds relaxed and warm and acts as a stylistic warm-up to the concluding Rondo.  Yes, it’s a bit on the soft side, and it starts off a bit slow, then it turns quick and soft, and it stays that way.  Schiff interrupts this relaxed sound with the occasional bass chord out of nowhere, and there is much jiggery-pokery to be heard throughout.  If the preceding description seems a bit out of line for this sonata, it is because this recording is not really conventional.  It’s full o’ personal touches and yet it all works.

I admit that I didn’t have especially high expectations for the Pathetique.  This isn’t really Schiff’s kind of music.  While I can’t report that his version makes my short-list of favorites, I can say that it greatly surpassed my expectations.  Schiff opens the Grave with strongly played but not pulverizing chords.  He makes it sound quite dramatic, too.  Then he plays the Allegro molto e con brio swiftly, with a bright, cutting treble helping to ratchet up the intensity, though he maintains a “classical” demeanor.  Then he repeats the Grave in the exposition repeat.  Few pianists have recorded the work this way, and no doubt many people don’t want to have the forward momentum interrupted by the slower theme, but it actually works well here.  That’s because Schiff plays the Grave a bit differently: it’s faster and more intense.  The second run through the Allegro is nimbler and even more dramatic.  The subsequent truncated reappearances of the Grave theme are likewise more dramatic than the initial one, or at least different enough to make one initially think so, and he brings the movement to a solid close.  The Adagio opens and closes with steady, lovely, lyrical, and subdued playing, and has a slightly sharper, spikier middle section.  The ending Rondo opens somewhat softly, and the overall mien of the movement is a bit softer than normal, but Schiff’s dexterous playing excites in places, and he knows just when to throw in a heavy, pointed chord for effect.  And he knows to end the work in a strong, energetic fashion, too. 

There is no doubt that this volume is much better than the first volume in the cycle.  This disc is distinctive and Schiff’s interpretation is very interventionist.  In some ways I can compare Schiff’s playing to Eric Heidsieck’s and Anton Kuerti’s.  All three offer individual – hell, idiosyncratic – takes on these pieces.  Whether or not one likes the playing will come down to taste and expectations.  I greatly enjoy Heidsieck and very strongly dislike Kuerti, but there’s no confusing either pianist’s playing with anyone else’s.  Much the same goes for Schiff.  I love it.  (And a second, “non-analytical” listening session only increased my fondness for the disc.)  Others may very well hate it.  I’d be surprised if anyone could truthfully say they’ve heard anything quite like it. 

Volume 3

Time for another volume.  This time around Schiff juggles the opus number chronology a bit to open this disc with the two Op 49 works, to more accurately reflect their dates of composition.  Perhaps not too surprisingly, he’s actually pretty good in the two little works.  Not great, but good.  The first sonata’s opening Andante is lovely and delicate, yet somehow still possesses hints of drama.  The Rondo, like the Andante, opens haltingly, but then proceeds to unfold at a nice pace with what some (or perhaps many) may call precious phrasing.  Schiff also trots out rubato and ornamentation enough to make the movement sound just enough unlike anyone else’s that one can call it a Schiff interpretation.  The second sonata opens with a bright, fun, and lyrical Allegro ma non troppo that is tastefully punctuated by some bolder chords here and there to liven things up a bit.  The Tempo di Menuetto is most notable for a crisp, steady left hand underpinning a somewhat softly voiced right hand that does a good job of evoking the good time feeling so easily heard in this theme from the Septet.

Time for some slightly more substantial fare in the form of the two Op 14 sonatas.  Comparative softness is again a pervasive trait, as the opening Allegro opens quite gently and pretty much stays that way.  The upside is that the playing is rather beautiful.  Even so, a bit more bite would have been welcome.  A slight offset comes in the nifty soft-focus left hand accompaniment that shows up in a few places.  I ain’t never heard nothing quite like it.  Another positive trait, which no doubt owes something to the clear and close recording, is the superb left-right clarity; one always easily hears what each hand is doing.  And it’s not all soft – Schiff knows enough to throw in some beefy chords and phrases here and there.  The Allegretto second movement, somewhat surprisingly, is tenser and tauter.  It still tends toward soft lyricism, but now has a brooding bent.  Schiff closes with a comparatively weighty Rondo full of flavorful rubato.  Overall, I can’t say that this rates among my favorites, but it’s a success.

That soft, lyrical style so present throughout the disc so far comes to its fullest fruition in the G major sonata.  The opening Allegro is downright beautiful and eminently lyrical.  My only quibble is that the runs are taken too deliberately, but otherwise I like it.  Some will no doubt find it too soft, but it works for what it is.  The Andante continues along largely similar lines, though there’s enough lightly punchy, rhythmically supple, and gently humorous playing to bring these variations to life.  The concluding Scherzo is definitely too soft – a bit more zip would have made it better yet – but the admirable clarity and occasional interjections of pianistic wit make for a good listen.

The disc ends with the last of the “early” sonatas, the (potentially) quite invigorating Op 22.  Continuing on with the style of the playing so far, the opening Allegro con brio is a bit reticent.  Where’s the weight and drive?  Where’s the brio, dammit?  Things pick up a bit at the ending, but it seems as though this is another soft one.  That ain’t necessarily so.  As with the first of the Op 14 sonatas, the slow movement is a bit tenser that one might expect.  Indeed, this Adagio is surprisingly quick and at times muscular and passionate.  What’s going on here?  Whatever it is, I like it!  The Minuetto offers much more of the same.  The outer sections are swift and strong (or at least strong-ish), but the middle section approaches sounding violent, at least within the context of Schiff’s playing.  To end the work, Schiff keeps up this more robust style.  The Rondo starts off slightly more relaxed than the preceding movement, which is just fine, but the tension never flags.  Then after 2’07” Schiff starts hammering out a few chords, ratchets up the tension a bit, and then plays in a somewhat grace-challenged blocky style before easing up to start it all over again.  The piece may start off a bit softly, but it doesn’t end that way.  I still prefer many others here, and my special weakness for French pianists in this work remains, but this is a nice way to cap off a disc.

The third volume in the cycle ends up falling somewhere between the first and second qualitatively.  I’m not too keen on the first volume, but really enjoy the second.  This one, it’s better than middle of the road, but it’s not a must have for non-LvB cycle collectors.  I look forward to next year as more substantive fare starts appearing on disc.  Perhaps Schiff is saving his best efforts for where they’ll really count.
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Offline Todd

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Re: András Schiff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: June 03, 2007, 03:23:30 PM »
Volume 4

Time for another volume; I’ll just jump in.

This volume starts with late early works, or early middle works, depending on how one looks at it.  Mr Schiff falls into the former category, so perhaps that will illuminate some of what will follow.  The disc opens with the Op 26 sonata, and here Schiff does reasonably well, but some nagging doubts that have accompanied the earlier volumes remain.  The Andante theme that opens the first movement sounds predictably lovely and warm and soft-hued, setting the stage, one hopes, for some fine variations.  The first variation, though, sounds a bit fussy until the end.  The second variation sounds more vibrant and almost playful, and has nice rhythmic brio.  The third is darker, harder, and louder, though not really heavier.  The fourth is incisive and jaunty but not jocular, and the final variation is warm, glowing, smooth, and lyrical.  So good, but not really great.  The Scherzo has a nice energy to it, but it’s somewhat light and lacks bite, not that one would expect a huge amount here.  The Funeral March is a bit different.  It’s quite brisk and small in scale.  There are hints of bitterness, too.  The build-up to the middle section is more vigorous, with the middle itself characterized by incisiveness and oomph.  But it’s also kind of abstract.  The concluding Allegro starts off slow and fussy, though it boasts wonderful low-end dynamics, and only exhibits any intensity in the middle.  So, it’s a mixed reading, but still enjoyable.

I expected more from Op 27/1.  Here fussiness becomes a real problem.  Not that the opening Andante theme reveals that: it’s predictably lovely and warm and smooth, the second theme even more so.  But the Allegro is fussy and clunky, and Schiff’s little touches – some peculiarly accented upper registers, for instance – don’t really add much.  A second pass at the Andante fares well, but the Allegro molto e vivace is even fussier than the Allegro.  It’s not at all vivacious, either.  The Adagio con espressione is actually a bit on the quick side, and it’s also a bit on the cool side.  A no go.  The closing movement opens with a fussy, prissy Allegro vivace, though it quickly picks up, only to become too fussy again.  Only the return of the initial Andante theme offers anything of value.  A clunker of a reading.

The Mondschein fares a bit better.  The Adagio sostenuto is uncommonly quick and, for Schiff in this recital, unfussy.  Solid, Bösendorfer bass underpins the playing, and a stark, urgent, tense feeling pervades.  What goes missing is haziness; it sounds as though Schiff didn’t lean too heavily on the sustain pedal.  The Allegretto sees the return of some fussiness, but it still offers a nice foil for the opening movement.  The plinky upper registers and plumy lower registers make for a nice sonic contrast during the movement.  The Presto agitato benefits from beefy rolling bass, but it suffers from some stiff, fussy playing again.  This occurs mostly in bursts, but it still doesn’t help.  Overall, I would have to say this is an average or perhaps slightly below average reading.

The disc closes with the great Pastorale, and I came to it with high expectations.  It just seemed to me that Schiff style would mesh well with the music.  It more or less does.  The opening Allegro sounds as warm and gracious and flowing as one could hope for.  Schiff displays near-exemplary dynamic gradation, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, and he also displays ample dexterity when called for.  The middle is stormier, as it ought to be, though it’s not really intense.  The Andante is taken at just the right pace and has just the right degree of tension and little pauses that are timed just right.  The middle section is the model of grace and charm.  The Scherzo sounds just plain fun.  Crisp and light in the outer sections, with a scampering trio, it really works.  Only in the Rondo do some concerns arise.  Schiff’s nearly ubiquitous fussiness makes an unwelcome return a few times, though fortunately only at the beginning of some phrases.  The music generally unfolds so gracefully and beautifully that one has little choice but to luxuriate in it.  The middle section starts off with feathery soft legato playing before deliberately and deliberatively building up to a satisfying climax before fading back to the opening material.  A nice gallop of a coda caps off a more than solid reading of this work.

What to make of this disc, and of this cycle?  The disc isn’t very successful.  A good Op 28 hardly makes for a satisfying disc.  The other works are just too fussy and lack real fire or sparkle.  The cycle itself is definitely mixed up to this point.  I really like the second volume, but the other three are not exactly compelling, and none of them have made it to my frequently played LvB list.  I must confess that although I generally like András Schiff, his Beethoven sonata cycle is turning out to be at least somewhat disappointing.  Perhaps he’ll do better later on, and I certainly want to hear him in some of the upcoming works (Opp 31/1, 54, 101), but I’ll have to rely on others for the real deal.

Superb sound quality.
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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Offline Dancing Divertimentian

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Re: András Schiff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #2 on: June 03, 2007, 07:50:51 PM »
Perhaps he’ll do better later on...

That's something to ponder.

Schiff, who tends to keep his 'flashier' side at bay while his poetic side is allowed to roam, may indeed take more to the introspective late Beethoven pieces than the earlier, 'flashier' ones.

Might be a match made in heaven. We'll see...

I just hope you're still on board with this cycle when that time comes, Todd! ;D

Veit Bach-a baker who found his greatest pleasure in a little cittern which he took with him even into the mill and played while the grinding was going on. In this way he had a chance to have the rhythm drilled into him. And this was the beginning of a musical inclination in his descendants. JS Bach

Offline Jo498

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Re: András Schiff Plays Beethoven
« Reply #3 on: September 13, 2021, 05:01:48 AM »
I revisited the only two vols. I have, namely 2 with opp.10+13 and 4 with opp.26-28. As I probably wrote already elsewhere, back then I had been quite fond of the lectures Schiff gave about the pieces that were online but not sufficiently convinced by these recordings to get more than these two volumes. Going through the too large number of single disc Beethoven sonatas in my shelves, I listened to both of them again. I still think they are not must haves but nevertheless keepers. While Serkin is unbeatable in the Pathetique with the Grave section repeated, it is nice to have another such recording in modern sound. I agree with Todd that Schiff can appear a bit fussy or mannered but I often find such touches interesting. The funeral march is too fast and too small scale but that's not my favorite anyway and the other movements of that sonata are nice. Overall, I largely agree with Todd's general assessmennt. I think I like Vol.2 a bit less than Todd does, maybe partly because I know more and stiffer competition for these works, and Vol.4 a bit more as I think the elusive op.27/1 benefits from some of Schiff's mannerisms.
Struck by the sounds before the sun,
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