“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.
Miklós Perényi was born in Budapest into a musical family. At the age of five he received his first cello lessons from Miklós Zsamboki, a former pupil of David Popper, and at the age of seven he was admitted to the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy Budapest where he studied with Professor Ede Banda. He made his debut in Budapest at the age of nine. He had further studies at the Accademia Santa Cecilia Roma with Professor Enrico Mainardi.
In 1962 he was a prize winner at the International Casals Competition held in Budapest. In 1965 and 1966 Pablo Casals invited him to join his master classes in Zermatt and Puerto Rico and this was followed by an invitation to perform at the Marlboro Festival for four consecutive years.
In 1974 he was appointed a teacher at the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy Budapest, where he is now Professor of the cello department. As an acknowledgement of his musical activites he was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1980, and the Bartok-Pasztory Prize in 1987. As a soloist and a chamber musician he has appeared in many musical centres and festivals in Europe as well as in America, Japan and China. He has a very extensive repertoire, including pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries to the present day. Miklós Perényi is, furthermore, active as a composer, writing pieces for cello and for chamber ensembles.
He has made a number of radio recordings as well as discs for the Hungaroton, Quint, Sony, Teldec, Erato, Col Legno and Decca record labels, and for Metropolitan Video. He made his ECM debut in 1995, contributing to György Kurtág’s “Musik für Streichinstrumente”.
Whether in the role of recitalist, concerto soloist, chamber musician or accompanist, András Schiff is recognised as one of the leading pianists of his generation. Known especially for his exploration of the Austro-German masters – Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Beethoven (whose sonatas dominate his schedule from 2004 to 2007) - his repertoire also embraces Chopin, Scarlatti, Smetana, Dvorák, Janácek and fellow-Hungarians Bartók and Kurtág.
András Schiff was born in Budapest in 1953 and studied at the city’s Ferenc Liszt Academy with Pal Kadosa, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados.
Schiff places a strong emphasis on recitals, chamber repertoire and collaboration with chamber orchestras, limiting his appearances in large-scale concertos. From 1989 until 1998 he was artistic director of the annual Mondsee chamber music festival in Austria and in 1995, together with oboist and composer Heinz Holliger, he founded the Ittinger Whitsun Festival in Switzerland. In the field of song, his collaborators have included Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Robert Holl, Thomas Quasthoff, Juliane Banse and Cecilia Bartoli.
András Schiff began directing performances from the piano in the early 1980s and he now also conducts a limited number of performances from the rostrum, with a focus on Bach choral works, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert symphonies. In 1999 he founded the Cappella Andrea Barca, an orchestra comprising leading chamber musicians and soloists, and which performs in Salzburg and Vicenza. Members of the orchestra join Schiff for this year’s Weimar Kunstfest, where the pianist is artist-in-residence.
Among awards received by András Schiff are the Bartók Prize; the Claudio Arrau Memorial Medal of Düsseldorf’s Robert Schumann Society; the Kossuth Prize (the highest Hungarian honour), Denmark’s Leonie Sonnings Music Prize; the Penna d’Oro della Cittá di Vicenza, and the Bremen Music Prize.
Following his long associations with Decca and Warner Classics, András Schiff today records for ECM New Series. His previous recordings for the label include: “Music For Two Pianos” – compositions by Mozart, Reger and Busoni performed by Schiff with Peter Serkin; Schubert Fantasies (with Yuuko Shiokawa, violin); “A Recollection”, music of Janáček; “András Schiff In Concert”, with music of Robert Schumann; “Songs of Debussy and Mozart” (with Juliane Banse). His ECM recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused a sensation in classical circles in 2003 and the album also a proved to be a popular best-seller.
Further András Schiff releases in preparation on ECM New Series include the Beethoven Piano Sonatas.
CD package includes 32-page German-English booklet with liner notes by Martin Meyer and leading Hungarian author Péter Esterházy, whose most recently published novel is “Celestial Harmonies”.