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Gratitude and Forgiveness

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
04/02/2009 -  
Beethoven: Sonatas No. 30 in E, Op. 109, No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110, & No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
András Schiff (Piano)

András Schiff (© Pete Checchia)

As András Schiff himself observed in his lecture at Wigmore Hall on Opus 109, words fail when attempting to write about Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, especially my words. It is certainly impossible, within the context of this review, to approach even the base camp to these musical Himalayas. But I can say that there is no question that Schiff’s project over these last few years, performing, recording and lecturing on the entire Beethoven cycle of piano sonatas in chronological order, is a huge success and one of the great musical undertakings of our time. The program notes for the recordings are also remarkable, done in the form of an interview/conversation with Martin Meyer, who also wrote a book with the pianist Alfred Brendel. The lecture/demonstrations are available for download from The Guardian website and offer astonishing insight into these towering works.

The late Beethoven sonatas are utterly singular; it is almost impossible to find a way, a metaphor, to describe their combination of overwhelming greatness and extreme intimacy, of intense engagement and unworldly resignation. András Schiff, in his lectures, often compares the music to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The more I reflect on it, this comparison is fascinating. The final cantos of the Paradiso, written near the end of Dante’s life, also achieve that extraordinary combination of intense intimacy and universality. Schiff’s performance, both in concert and in the cycle of recordings may not be everyone’s favorite. But his sincerity, his meticulous scholarship and musical gift, and the authentic spirituality of his approach are equal to the challenge of Beethoven’s sonatas. Schiff’s interpretation will carry the influence and weight of an historic musical event.

I once attended a concert/master class given by the great Viennese pianist Paul Badura-Skoda at the Salle Cortot of the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. One student played Beethoven’s Sonata Appassionata and another played the Opus 111. Badura-Skoda was full of passion, combustion and sweetness, and an immense depth of knowledge and humanity. He brought out his facsimile of the original Opus 111 manuscript, to help describe his own relationship to the piece. He said that he first loved the difficult Opus 111 at 17, and then tried to play it at 21, but finally was able to play it reasonably well at 36. As an older man, he found it one of man's greatest expressions of humanity, and felt closer to the "ideal" performance that he was helping the young players seek. At the piano, he leaned over toward the student, talking and playing, his eyes brimming over with manic fire. It was an extraordinary experience to be offered that inside perspective into the Beethoven sonatas.

The encounters with Beethoven offered by András Schiff, through both his performances and the lectures online, were even more massive and comprehensive than Badura-Skoda’s master class. I feel that I could go back to them decade after decade, and find more and more depth. His live performances of the sonatas from Opus 90 to Opus 111 were crystal hard and brilliant, beautiful but difficult, challenging. His interpretation of the final sonatas seemed to emphasize that the pieces were formed and developed in a manner that was radically different from the earlier sonatas. His performance of the opening of Opus 90 in Disney Hall was darker than in the recording, but he did find humor in the Opus 101. In the Disney Hall Hammerklavier sonata, he almost blew the lid off the piano.

Walking out of the hall after the concert, a friend commented that the final movement (Arietta) “was like the sound track to when I am flying in my dreams.” I am looking forward to Krystian Zimerman's performance of the Opus 111 in Disney Hall a few weeks from now.

Thomas Aujero Small



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