Detroit Free Press (MCT)
DETROIT — Finally, the summit.
For two years, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff has been climbing one of the highest peaks in classical music, performing all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order. The rewarding journey concludes this week with a final concert Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Schiff's performances have become a sweeping manifesto, with the 55-year-old pianist performing the cycle not only here but in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. His celebrated live recordings of the sonatas for ECM grew out of a European cycle in 2004-06.
Beethoven's sonatas are the New Testament of solo piano to go along with the Old Testament of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier." But the final six sonatas, profoundly sublime and inventive, create a gospel of their own. Schiff brings a compelling blend of head and heart to these works, with a flowing naturalism replacing the fussiness that sometimes crops up in his playing. He spoke from Los Angeles.
Q: What is extraordinary about the late sonatas?
A: They are the last station of a long journey. Beethoven wrote piano sonatas throughout his life. They cover about 25 years — quite a lot in days when people didn't live so long.
He was a brilliant young man and a brilliant pianist, and he started writing piano sonatas for his own use as a virtuoso. As he progressed with almost unprecedented development and evolution, this youthful exuberance turns into conflicting and heroic pieces in the middle period. At the same time there are tender and lyrical pieces and funny and humorous pieces.
As he reaches the last phase, something important happens — a quality change from everything he has been through. His deafness has a lot to do with it. These pieces are much more intense, more concentrated, more complex. There are transcendental and metaphysical elements.
But not only that. Certainly something like Opus 106, the "Hammerklavier Sonata," is really the greatest mental and physical challenge for Beethoven and us as performers.
Q: Beethoven's late works push into innovative territory by reinvestigating fundamentals. He takes ideas of the past, like Bach-inspired counterpoint, to new levels of complexity.
A: Yes. He also constantly experiments with new forms. The sonata is a wonderful vehicle for Beethoven, because it can tell a story, dramatize, present conflicts and contrasts. It's astonishing in the late works how different they all are.
Q: The music is so wise, but is there a danger in playing it too seriously?
A: Yes. There are all these layers and elements. There is humor in each one and passion and profound philosophy. You cannot stop analyzing this music until the end of your life. Yet I don't think listeners are interested in hearing your analysis when you perform.
One has to know a lot about this music and its cross references and its predecessors and successors. But you have to try and absorb all of that information into your interpretation so that it's not noticeable.
Q: Is that the greatest challenge in performing them?
A: Yes. It's huge. The "Hammerklavier" is a great physical challenge. The others are mental, emotional and intellectual challenges. You have to live with this music for a long time and take into account the first few times that you play these pieces, it will not be very good.
It's wonderful for young people to listen to this music and study this music, but I don't think it's wonderful if young pianists play it. I would almost say hands off.
Q: How old do you have to be to play this music?
A: I can't say exactly. But it was in my 50th year when I felt I could make a first attempt.
Q: Has your saturation in Beethoven influenced how you play other composers?
A: Yes. It changed me completely, hopefully for the better. It gave me a lot of confidence. ... Somehow you grow up as a person with this music. This is a composer who really writes about the human condition. He's not somebody who is untouchable like Mozart, but somebody who has had a real life and a full life.
There's even a moral lesson. There's something so uncompromising to Beethoven. He is not about perfection. One can have an absolutely note-perfect rendering of Beethoven which is totally unsatisfying. And one can have many mistakes and blemishes, and still it goes to the core. You cannot have the same with Bach or Mozart.
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