Thursday, October 16, 2008

In Review--Beethoven Sonata Cycle Completed

Andras Schiff
Ludwig Van Beethoven The Piano Sonatas
Volume VII (Sonatas opp. 90,101 and 106)
ECM Records

Andras Schiff
Ludwig Van Beethoven The Piano Sonatas
Volume VIII (Sonatas 109, 110 & 111)
ECM Records

Hungarian concert pianist Andras Schiff took on the great task of recording all of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in chronological order. The pianist completed the cycle with The Piano Sonatas Volume VII and Volume VIII. Now, while I did not travel the entire journey of the 32 sonata cycle (I only heard 5 of the 8 CDs), I still experienced quite an adventure.

As you might imagine, Schiff embodied the Romantic Era composer since he was spending so much time with the sonatas and the composer. One read through the liner notes that accompany these recordings, reveals the deep and thoughtful, even heartfelt relationship that Schiff developed with Beethoven. He performs these sonatas from the inside out, which was something the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould did with J.S. Bach. Certainly this is my favorite way to hear classical or any music. Schiff, like Gould had the confidence to follow his own instincts instead of relying too heavily on his musical predecessors or Beethoven scholars. Music is more about feeling and following gut instincts than it is about thought and analysis.

At least one of two things occur when listening to these recordings. The first possibility is that a listener can deeply get in touch with their own emotions through traveling through Beethoven's vibrant moods. The second possibility is that listeners who might have just thought of Beethoven in passing, might grow enamored with the composer after listening to Schiff's honest and vulnerable performance, or should I exchange the word channeling for "performance"? Schiff brings Beethoven into listeners' stereos in such a way that it could only be mentioned as a spiritual experience as far as I am concerned. One might even feel Beethoven standing in the room with them.

After reading the liner notes for Volume VII and especially the section about Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, op. 106, also known as, "Hammerklavier," I was not so sure I wanted to listen to the recording. I thought that it was going to be a dark and painful experience in which I would have lost my way through the complex sonata. Even the liner notes mentioned the daunting complexity of the piece for both musicians and listeners.

However, even though I would not describe the sonata as lovely, I certainly would describe it as powerful and cathartic with sublime moments. The entire recording features athletic musical finesse on the part of the pianist. While I doubt any musician is going to have a nervous breakdown performing the piece as intended by Beethoven (as the pianist in the movie, "Shine" did with one of Rachmaninov's piano concertos), I imagine that the pianist must have felt spent or invigorated after performing it.

Volume VIII is much easier on the nervous system, but also features some mind-blowing sonatas. I know after listening to the 5 of 8 CDs of this cycle, I have come to know Beethoven a little better, not just as a master composer, but also as a human being whose emotions ran the gamut from utterly vulnerable, to victorious and even humorous.

I look forward to hearing more of Andras Schiff's recordings. In the way that he developed great respect for Ludwig Van Beethoven, I have developed great respect for Schiff.


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