When I'm so deeply absorbed in a composer, as I have been with Beethoven, then I physically and mentally begin to feel like him. Beethoven changed me as a person. There are composers who enrich you and uplift you - Beethoven is the best example. As a composer and as a person, I feel he has a lot of generosity, I have enormous choices.
András Schiff, The Guardian, September 2008
Three years after the release of the first volume, András Schiff‘s highly acclaimed Beethoven cycle is now complete. In his afterword to the eighth installment he described the challenges he faced with this project: “Like picture restorers, we performers have to scrape off the layers of convention, have to remove the dust and dirt, in order to reproduce the work in all its original freshness.”
Only now is it fully clear why he waited until his fifth decade before embarking on a complete survey of what Hans von Bülow once called the “New Testament of piano music,” a body of music that has occupied him since his youth. The veneration that this celebrated interpreter of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert has felt toward such works as Beethoven’s final two sonatas involved above all the aspect of sound: “Beethoven’s piano sound is hugely complex: it’s less a matter of loudness, as of inner intensity and strength, and these qualities are also a question of richness. A ‘piano’ in Beethoven is thicker and fuller than it is with Mozart or Schubert. Why do all pianists find the beginning of the G-major Piano Concerto so problematic? Certainly, it carries the subtext of a simpler G-major triad, but its eight voices have to be balanced with the greatest refinement. Therein lies the art, and this regard I’ve spoken about not wanting to try this suit of clothes on until I had really grown into it.”
As a Beethoven performer Schiff aspired to nothing less than a contemporary synthesis of everything the music conveys from a present-day vantage point. The first task was to combine a scrupulous re-reading of the musical text with the level of interpretation achieved by the great pianists of the past. Although Schiff is a connoisseur of period keyboard instruments and an avid practitioner of new discoveries in performance practice, he did not want to dispense with the performer’s interpretive license. This explains the underlying concept of his Beethoven cycle: the thirty-two works, composed between 1795 and 1822, appear in chronological order to illuminate the compositional process at work within them. Beethoven’s piano sonatas, after all, stand alongside his string quartets as his principal vehicle of stylistic experimentation. To approach the variety of Beethoven’s inflections, three different grand pianos were used: two Bösendorfers and one Steinway. Finally, the recordings were preceded by at least fifteen public recitals to achieve the luminous superiority of Schiff’s live performance in the Zurich Tonhalle – with all the attendant perils of the “here and now.”
Now the final two albums present the complete sonatas from Beethoven’s late period – opp. 90, 101, 106, 109, 110 and 111 – thereby unveiling the full range of Schiff’s reading. To paraphrase Goethe’s Italian metaphor, “only now do we have the key to it all.” One highlight of any cycle is the forty-five-minute Hammerklavier Sonata. With a glance at the fast metronome marks, Schiff calls it “probably the most difficult work in the piano repertoire in whatever terms you choose to name: technique, structure, atmosphere, or metaphysics.” Following Schiff’s recitals of May 2006, reviewers in England, Switzerland, and Germany again heaped praise on his structural clarity coupled with superior pianistic control and an entirely personal approach to character. The end of the first cycle, given in Europe in late 2006, found an equally broad response from the press. “The three sonatas,” wrote Julia Spinola in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “sounded like the purest essence of Beethoven’s late style – preternatural, as if hewn from precious marble.” No less impressed was Peter Hagmann of Zurich: “Even when the music rises to speak of the Ineffable, Schiff remains beholden as an interpreter to the laws of moderation and form. This belittles nothing: on the contrary, it allows the emotional and ideational profundity of these works of art to emerge with all the more clarity.”
In his final program Schiff unflinchingly abandoned his principle of live recordings. Beethoven’s music, he maintains, “needs great moments and spontaneous instants that only happen ‘live’ – if we’re lucky. And what happens if the concert doesn’t work? Then you don’t have to issue the results. For this reason I decided to record the last three sonatas again in the empty hall of the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany, a few months after the Zurich performance. The recordings of all the other sonatas took place at the matinees in Zurich, with small corrections from the rehearsals. What we were trying to achieve were ‘valid’ performances of the works, and for that reason we deliberately did without any applause, which is always somehow disturbing in recordings.”
The Beethoven sonatas will regularly feature in Schiff’s recitals until summer 2009. One of his major new projects, he just announced in The Guardian, will be the piano music of Claude Debussy. In the meantime his next ECM album is already in the offing: a new recording of the six Partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach, recorded live in the Neumarkt Reitstadel and scheduled for release in early 2009.
All the albums appear with a unified cover design, employing cartographic drawings by Jan Jedlička, and include facsimiles of Beethoven’s manuscripts as well as detailed conversations between András Schiff and Martin Meyer regarding the works and their performance.