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Early Lud With A Surprise Ending

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/16/2008 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1 – Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2 – Sonata No. 19 in g minor, Op. 49, No. 1 – Sonata No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2 – Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major, Op. 22

András Schiff (Piano)

Like many of his colleagues, the noted Hungarian pianist András Schiff has been taking on the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. This is a courageous act for anybody, and for one of Mr. Schiff’s stature, the challenge is more than worthwhile. But “complete” means far more than the great late sonatas or the well-known “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” etc. It means working with relatively unfamiliar works, some of which have not quite stood the test of time.

Yet in the first half of the program, the three early sonatas, written just at the dawn of the 18th Century, gave Mr. Schiff room to warm up for the second half. Not that he was unrehearsed. But no matter how masterfully he played them—and no matter how eloquently he has described them in interviews—they are more derivative of Mozart and Haydn than the real Beethoven.

The numbers also were deceiving. The two sonatas of Opus 49 were not in the so-called Middle Period. They were early works (obviously), but published later. The opening movement of the first in the series was played with a delicacy and nuance which could have been Mozart—or Chopin! Such clean playing for the inconsequential opening theme was worthy of respect, as was the playful Allegro.The second was not quite in this league. It was lyrical, bright, had some very intricate scale passages, and Mr. Schiff sailed through without any trouble.

After the intermission, Mr. Schiff got down to perhaps the “real” Beethoven with the 20th sonata. This was young Beethoven, without dissonance, without jarring juxtapositions, But this was also the Beethoven of urgency, of great humor (not a simple bang!), and the sound of surprise. The “minuet” was more of a scherzo, and the little joke marches weren’t too serious. Mr. Schiff started by keeping the tension in the first movement, moving onto a smooth slow movement, and ending with a delightful rondo. Beethoven loved the work himself, and Mr. Schiff, for the first time in the evening, had some very substantial material with which to work.

Those a bit disappointed in the material now were given a luxury encore. Schiff played all five movements of J.S. Bach’s complex, and mature First Partita with such precision, gentleness and lustrous joy that it put Beethoven’s youthful efforts in the shade.

Harry Rolnick



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