International press reactions to the first volume of Schiff’s Beethoven cycle released in October 2005 were unanimous in their praise and critics expressed high expectations for the edition as a whole. “If the first volume (superbly recorded and annotated by ECM) is anything to go by, this Beethoven cycle will not only provoke and illuminate but give the lie to those who wonder if there is room for yet another”, wrote Jeremy Nicholas in Gramophone while Hugh Canning, in the Sunday Times, drew a similar perspective: “If the results match this volume we are in for a memorable cycle“. And in the German weekly Die Zeit Wolfram Goertz spoke of “an integral that deserves our most thorough attention as the beginning is spectacular”. Le monde de la musique on the other hand quite laconically greeted one of the “great Beethoven interpreters of our time.”
Schiff who early on played and recorded comprehensive cycles of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, has taken his time with Beethoven. Until he was 50, the 32 sonatas marked an obvious gap in his repertoire. The pianist has always emphasized his respect for the extreme demands of this repertoire and its intimidating performance tradition built up by the legendary masters of the past like Schnabel, Fischer, Kempff or Arrau to name but a few. Beethoven’s piano sonatas, written in a fairly steady flow of productiveness between 1795 and 1822, are the composer’s very laboratory. No single opus resembles another; each of them arrives at completely new solutions – in extreme concentration and density. The cycle, which Hans von Bülow once called the pianist’s “New Testament”, forms the central compendium of Beethoven’s creative work and no other group of pieces allows for a comparably detailed overview of his stylistic development.
Schiff’s concept to record the sonatas live and on two different pianos has found much respect with reviewers. In an interview for the Swiss magazine Musik und Theater Schiff again outlined his unconventional approach: “I’m fully convinced that vivid performances are possible only in front of an audience. I obviously don’t share Glenn Gould’s opinion that concerts are superfluous and that work in the recording studio is so much more important. Being an artist you live for those very moments when music really happens.” Schiff plays each programme in 15 different cities before recording it in the Zürich Tonhalle, famous for its outstanding acoustics. “I really feel that my performances become more mature from concert to concert. The repetitions are a very valuable lesson.” As to his alternating use of a Steinway and a Bösendorfer, both maintained by the renowned piano technician Fabbrini in Italy, Schiff emphasizes Beethoven’s versatility as a composer and his great range of sonorities: “Most of his piano sonatas are rather lyrical and smooth pieces – they are poetic, philosophical, sometimes even humorous creations that don’t ‘bite’ in the way the ‘Appassionata’, the ‘Pathétique’ or the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata do. They have nothing in common with the cliché of the heroic and dramatic Beethoven. That’s why I prefer the Bösendorfer in these works.”
Schiff has repeatedly claimed that Beethoven’s early sonatas need to be taken absolutely seriously as they offer highest compositional quality right from the start with op.2. The sonatas op. 10, written between 1796 and 1798 when the composer was not yet thirty years old, form a group of subtly interrelated masterworks. In Schiff’s view they are pieces for “connoisseurs and amateurs”, each of them displaying its own clearly defined character while the famous ‘Grande Sonate Pathétique’ dating from 1798/99 introduces a dramatic attitude and a symphonic writing that was to become a central trait of some of Beethoven’s most important works.
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, Dvořák, Janáček 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 Cecilia Bartoli, Juliane Banse, Thomas Quasthoff, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Robert Holl.
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.
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.The complete Sonatas for Piano and Cello by Beethoven, a collaboration with fellow countryman Miklós Perényi, released last autumn (ECM New Series 1819/20) won a MIDEM Classical Award and were awarded a Jahrespreis by the jury of German record critics.
CD includes a generous booklet with an extensive interview which András Schiff gave to Martin Meyer, leading editor at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Cover design for the eight volumes of the series incorporates watercolour paintings by Czech-Swiss artist Jan Jedlička.