Monday, October 13, 2008

Beginning the Second Half of the Beethoven Cycle

Last April András Schiff concluded the first half of his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven with one of Beethoven's two "runs" of consecutive opus numbers, 26, 27, and 28, all completed in 1801. At the beginning of last night's recital, we were still in 1801 with the three Opus 31 sonatas, after which we advanced to 1804, when the Opus 53 "Waldstein" sonata was published. In his program notes Michael Steinberg suggested that Beethoven may have intended the Opus 31 sonatas "to set out on a new path" (words from Beethoven's correspondence), having written that he was "little satisfied" with how his work had progressed. I can imagine any number of composers today who would have been perfectly satisfied to have Opera 26–28 in their own portfolio, but dissatisfaction can be an even more effective mother of invention than necessity.

To my own ears that "new path" may have involved experimenting with structural forms; but much of the rhetoric of the first half of the cycle is still there. Beethoven is still in the best of spirits, and all three of these sonatas exhibit his wit at its best. He is also still very interested in using "significant silence" as a rhetorical device in both witty and serious settings. In other words the Beethoven we got to know so well during the four concerts of the first half is still very much with us.

On the other hand it seemed as if Schiff had gone through a quantitative shift (pun not really intended) in his approach to this Beethoven. His performances were far more deliberative, and he seemed more occupied with dwelling on individual notes than on whole gestures. This made all three of the sonatas feel qualitatively as if they were taking too much time; and, while I was not taking accurate measurements, my watch seemed to agree. Unfortunately, this did not serve Beethoven's rhetoric particularly well. The silences were less significant and felt more like excessive rests, while the wit felt more than a little labored. As had been the case with previous sonatas collected under a single opus number, Schiff tried to group them together as a single event (with time for applause and bows); but the spirit of previous collections just was not there, which meant that the sense of unity was also absent.

Things improved considerably with Opus 53, perhaps because the dramatic intensity was now a more dominant factor. We are now at a time after the "Heiligenstadt Testament;" and there has been a considerable shock to the system of Beethoven's worldview. That dramatic intensity appears to have beefed up the intensity of Schiff's performance, making for an exciting listening experience. From an academic point of view, it would have been nice had Schiff decided to perform the F major "Andante (favori)" (WoO 57) as his encore, since this had originally been intended as the middle movement of Opus 53. However, instead Schiff chose to continue with his "whole Bach" encores moving from the keyboard Partitas and French Suites to the Italian Concerto. Unfortunately, given the duration of the evening before the encore and given Schiff's approach to Opus 31, this choice did not really add very much to the listening experience.

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