Last night András Schiff performed the first of his final two recitals in his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It was time for the second of the two "monuments" in the canon of piano sonatas, the "monumental" Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier"). This sonata is technically challenging from its opening gesture (which would later be honored by Johannes Brahms in the opening gesture of his own first piano sonata); but the work also poses major challenges to the listener. Most of those challenges have to do with what I have called the "journey through an extended duration of time." Except for the (extremely?) brief scherzo, each of the movements of this sonata takes on an unconventional (for its time) time-scale; and, while the first movement does this through relatively familiar sonata-allegro territory, the relationship between structure and process of the final two movements is harder to penetrate.
Yesterday I wrote about this journey as it was pursued in the andante cantabile third movement of Beethoven's Opus 97 ("Archduke") trio in B-flat major in my Examiner.com review of a recital by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. In this case the journey is based on a theme-and-variations structure; and the extended duration arises when Beethoven departs from choosing a simple theme in favor of what I have previously called "a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives." In the adagio sostenuto movement of Opus 106, the structural framework follows the conventional sonata form; but Schiff offered the following comments in his conversation with Martin Meyer included in the program book:
While it's true that this structure is easy to make out in the score, in playing or listening to the piece it's much less obvious, because it's the poetic side that dominates as an expressive force, with its slow iambuses and intricate whispered figuration. Beethoven produces absolutely astonishing effects of sonority, which makes the "deconstruction" of the main theme in the final part of the coda all the more haunting. Following a wide-ranging journey of the passions, the movement ends at once laconically and full of expectation on a pianissimo held chord of F-sharp major.
This is clearly not for casual listening. Indeed, it requires an alertness of perception that may put performance at a disadvantage when this sonata is performed at the end of a program (as it was last night).
Even more challenging, however, is that the alertness allotted to this movement may sap the "cognitive energy" required for the fugue of the final movement. This, again, is a major journey, not to mention a major departure from the traditional conventions of fugue. However, even in the absence of those conventions, there remains the sense of fugue as a conversation among its "voices," rather than just a massive contrapuntal fabric. I continue to admire how Richard Goode establishes this sense in his performances of Bach counterpoint, and here in San Francisco pianist Frank French demonstrated that same sense in his concert performance of the 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In the framework of that sense of fugue, a journey of extended duration amounts to a particularly involved (and extended) conversation. Unfortunately, that sense was absent in Schiff's performance. Indeed, it was absent not only from Beethoven's fugue but also from the encore performance of Bach's BWV 903 "Chromatic" fantasia and fugue in D minor. It was almost as if towards the end of last night's journey Schiff had shifted to autopilot to finish out the evening. Nevertheless, he followed his Bach encore with a graceful and witty account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 574 "Eine kleine Gigue" in G major; but I suspect that this work is familiar enough to him that even it could have been "flown on autopilot," so to speak. This may just have been the sort of "occupational hazard" that is hard to avoid when one undertakes a truly massive project.