Monday, February 13, 2017

ECM Releases an Album of Pianist András Schiff’s Encores

This past Friday ECM New Series released its latest album of performances by pianist András Schiff. The title of the album is Encores after Beethoven, and it deserves a bit of explanation. During the previous decade, Schiff toured with an eight-concert cycle, distributed over the course of two years, in the course of which he played the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Here in San Francisco I attended every one of those concerts in Davies Symphony Hall. I discovered that Schiff had put a lot of thought into selecting an appropriate encore for all of those concerts except the very last. I even wrote on this site about my expectations for his encore selection at the conclusion of such a massive journey, suggesting that the first movement of Opus 2, Number 1 (the first movement of the first sonata) would be the best choice, just as Richard Wagner had concluded his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) as it had begun, with the gold back in the Rhine.

The performances on this new ECM recording were made during what was probably Schiff’s first series of recitals of this cycle. The performances took place between March of 2004 and May of 2006 at the Tonhalle in Zürich, about three years before Schiff took the cycle on a tour of North America that included San Francisco. The encores are presented in the chronological order of their performances; and, as was the case in San Francisco, there is no encore for the final recital.

Sadly, neither my memory nor my documentation can account for all of the encores I experienced over the course of this cycle. I know from experience that Schiff tends to have a preference for encores on the lengthy side. I remember one occasion at which he performed the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasia in C major as an encore. I am not sure whether he played this for his Beethoven cycle or a subsequent cycle of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, I am pretty sure it was during the former, because he made it a point to bring attention to Schumann having quoted a phrase from Beethoven’s Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) at the end of that opening movement.

On this new recording the longest encore is an entire sonata by Joseph Haydn, Hoboken XVI/44 in G minor. This sonata consists of only two movements, and the full duration is less than fifteen minutes. I find it interesting that the selections on this album account for both “before” and “after” perspectives of the Beethoven sonatas on the individual programs. In the “before” category, Haydn is joined by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Bach; but Mozart’s presence could not be more modest. At his second recital Schiff played the K. 574 “Eine kleine Gigue” in G major, which takes less that two minutes. This was one recital to receive two encores, with the Mozart selection preceded by Franz Schubert’s D. 915 Allegretto movement in C minor. Schubert is the only “after” composer included on this album.

Most interesting was the presence of Bach with the BWV 867 prelude and fugue in B-flat minor (from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier) concluding the seventh recital, while the encore for the sixth recital consisted of the two minuets and gigue movements from the BWV 825 keyboard partita in B-flat major. Only one of the encores is by Beethoven, but it is the one that matters the most in the chronology of the sonatas. The encore following his performance of the Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) sonata in C major was the WoO “Andante favori” in F major, which had originally been planned as the second movement for Opus 53.

There may well be listeners put off by an album of encores performed out of context, particularly when a performer as “context-sensitive” as Schiff is involved. Some of them will be able to resolve their discontent by consulting the earlier ECM recordings of the sonatas themselves. Those who do not have those recordings, however, should be informed that this box set was reissued this past December 16 (Beethoven’s birthday, for those who need to be reminded). The reissue includes seven of the eight encores on an additional “bonus disc,” while the “Andante favori” encore is included on the disc with Opus 53. On the other hand those content to listen to Schiff’s sensitive interpretations of short selections of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert on their own merits will find much to enjoy in the Encores after Beethoven album.

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