wed 28/09/2022

Prom 64, Beethoven's Last Three Piano Sonatas, Schiff review - morning glory | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 64, Beethoven's Last Three Piano Sonatas, Schiff review - morning glory

Prom 64, Beethoven's Last Three Piano Sonatas, Schiff review - morning glory

A tasteful but forceful journey

Fascinating rhythm: Sir András SchiffAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

In more ways than one, Beethoven’s last piano sonatas can make the listener lose track of time. It’s not just the delirious freedom with rhythm, accents, signatures and note-values that the ageing, afflicted composer of Op. 109, 110 and 111 unleashes in these epoch-shifting works.

Played with as much consummate, fuss-free art as Sir András Schiff brings to them, the unfolding drama of this revolutionary trio can truly seem to stop the clock.

I wondered, at the close of Schiff’s Sunday-morning solo recital at the Proms, why it had been so short. But it hadn’t: our pre-lunch banquet had delivered 80-odd minutes of sublime music, with an extra dish to start (see below). Rather, Schiff – always scrupulous and refined, never showy or distracting – catches and keeps the attention with such quietly-spoken authority that the journey speeds by at what feels like musical warp speed. 

Given the aversion to solo performance that persisted at the Proms until recently, maybe it should not have been surprising to learn that Op. 109 and 110 have never been heard here before (even 111 has only made it to Cadogan Hall). Still, it feels like outrageous neglect. Worries about the venue as a home for soloists vanished as the sheer lucidity, balance and poise of Schiff’s playing made a low-lit Royal Albert Hall shrink almost to salon size. His performances of the Well-Tempered Clavier at the Proms have already proven his ability to command this giant barn with the transparent force and focus of his pianism – and a devotion to Bach as the wellspring of his art. This time, he prefaced the three sonatas with a sort of interpretative signpost: the E major Prelude and Fugue from Book II of the WTC. Thus we moved, without any break, straight into the “New Testament” of the classical keyboard after a reminder of the debt Beethoven owed to the Old. 

In terms of Schiff’s reading, this palate-cleansing prelude placed a focus on the fugal writing that Beethoven lifts to such dizzying, outlandish heights in his late sonatas. We heard the secrets of the fugue's strict magic passed from one chief wizard to another. That urgent, remorseless tread and weave made its way through the morning, held in Schiff’s implacable, but never bullying, left hand. As often with this artist, the result – in its evenness of tone, crisp rhythmic pulse and avoidance of extremes – veered towards the Baroque past more than the Romantic future. Though he did, at the end, let Beethoven’s wildest beasts run free. 

From that Bachian opening on, Schiff (pictured above) maintained a limpid, radiant tone – with the all penetration and articulation a solo player needs to hold this space – and insisted on seamless continuity. Only intrusive clapping after 110 marred the sense of an unfolding narrative over the three pieces. It begins and ends in serene, glowing calm but, en route, visits heaven, hell and all stops in between. This wasn’t a morning for melodramatic pauses; you had to go with Schiff’s unbroken, lightly-pedalled flow. The first movement of 109 brought us straight back to the the craggily complex harmonies of Bach, where our trip had begun. Its closing molto cantabile theme, warm but grave, also breathed a sacred, liturgical solemnity. The variations, though, hinted at the expressive fireworks to come in 111. Even in the more dazzling starbursts, Schiff lets you hear the earthy, massive harmonic underpinnings on which all these decorative fantasias depend. 

Schiff is never chilly but his restrained sensitivity does not try too hard to please. Some listeners might have thought that the more genial, companionable passages of 110 lacked easy-going charm. Still, his runs and leaps in the cantabile first moment had a sparkling vivacity, while the closing fugue boasted all the weighty sheen of polished basalt, set against the jewel-like glint of the lyrical arioso theme above. In general, Schiff steered clear of exaggerated shifts between whispers and roars; even his sforzando moments seldom sound violent. But on those occasions when he did highlight dynamic contrasts – as in the droll, folk song-inspired scherzo – it only enhanced the impact of the gesture.

Since the entire concert allowed us to hear the connections that bind these three pieces together (and all of them with Bach), that annoying applause after 110 felt especially pointless. Schiff quickly restored order with the brooding, glowering C minor grandeur of the maestoso that opens 111. Other, less fastidious pianists might make more of a meal of the horror-movie thumps and rumbles we then hear in the lower octaves – one of those Beethoven moments when the sublime courts the almost-ridiculous. He made the menace feel real. 

However, Schiff arguably saved his best for last. The set of arietta variations in the mighty adagio of 111 would surely silence any sceptics who have found his Beethoven a little too cerebral or cool. Here the finesse of his phrasing, and sheer clarity of voice, came into their own, as the score itself demands a rhapsodic, syncopated fervour that pushes far beyond any prior boundaries of the form. If Schiff kept this potential rhythmic chaos on a tight leash in the blizzards of 32nd notes, he never lacked excitement. He may not believe (as some do) that one of these jazzy variations invents boogie-woogie almost a century before its time – but this most tasteful of interpreters still absolutely stormed the barn. His trills had a faraway, stellar enchantment, while the fugal pulse thumped unstoppably beneath. And Schiff’s, perhaps unaccustomed, animation made the gentle homecoming of the simple, modest close all the more profound. 

As always with this least meretricious of maestros, you come to him to understand Beethoven – or Bach – rather than plumb the depths of the pianist’s soul. Yet a performance like this, dignified, discreet but gently impassioned, surely paints a more intimate portrait of the performer than any amount of splashy stunts. I was reminded of TS Eliot’s dictum that “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to escape from these things”. Schiff has a huge, if veiled, musical personality; but then personality and ego are not the same at all. 

Comments

Yes. András Schiff is the most complete musician I have ever encountered. His search for musical truth involves a work ethic that is unattainable for most people. Thank you for this fine review.

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