Beethoven: Piano sonata

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: ECM Records
WORKS: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3: Op. 14,Nos 1 & 2, Op. 22 & Op. 49, Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: András Schiff (piano)

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The third volume in András Schiff’s complete Beethoven cycle offers an intriguing programme, the didactic Op. 49 Sonatas and the intimate Op. 14 set forming a rather attractive hors d’oeuvre to the weighty Op. 22 Sonata.

Yet although all these works manifest very different moods and characters, Schiff makes efforts to penetrate beneath the surface aspects of the music, focusing on moments of intimacy and introspection.

The approach to Op. 14, No. 1 is especially daring, and is in many ways far more revelatory than the very fine recording from Richard Goode on the Nonesuch label which has in the past been my benchmark for this particular work.

Taking an unusually expansive approach to the first movement, Schiff invests the musical argument with an astonishing variety of texture and dynamic range, the concluding passage sounding like an uncanny anticipation of the first movement of Schubert’s B flat Piano Sonata.

With a clever balancing between the hands, the ensuing Allegretto sounds much more sombre than usual, and Schiff brings a great deal of exuberance to his delivery of the finale.

The modest Op. 49 Sonatas are treated with affection and poetic sensibility, whilst Schiff relishes the unbuttoned humour of the middle movement of Op. 14/2.

Highlights of the Op. 22 Sonata include an almost vocal right-hand in the Adagio con molto espressione, Schiff exploiting the cantabile tone of his Fabbrini piano to wonderful effect, and a finale that draws an impressive contrast between the almost Schumannesque lyricism of the opening and the dramatic and forceful contrapuntal elaboration of the middle section.

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Whilst still having some reservations about the somewhat reverberant acoustics of Zürich Tonhalle where these live recordings were made, there’s little doubt that this release contains some very special insights and seems far less self-conscious than some of Schiff’s earlier Beethoven.