In a lengthy question-and-answer programme interview for his latest Beethoven recital, András Schiff repeatedly refers to the world-without-boundaries of Beethoven’s piano writing – specifically the composer’s middle-period sonatas, encompassing the three Opus 31 sonatas and the “Waldstein”. Schiff talks of the “huge psychological forces” at work in the music, the “violent concentration of statements”, the “limitless panorama of ideas and transformations”, even the “heightened expressiveness” of Beethoven’s trills.
These are the words of someone who has lived and wrestled with the sonatas for the best part of a lifetime, and is an acknowledged master of them. Yet in the actual playing, Schiff only began to suggest such boundary-breaking extremes in the finale of the “Waldstein”, when his expressive contrasts, often within a single phrase, suggested the unstoppable force Beethoven was clearly trying to articulate.
Schiff addresses the music in such concentrated style – barely a pause between movements – that he never lets the listener’s attention slip, even in such a long and dense first half as the triptych of Opus 31. That is a rare achievement. The flip side of such total security is emotional self-containment. We hear Beethoven the colourist, the melodist, the technical wizard, but not the humanist. There is not a shred of doubt or ambiguity in Schiff’s Beethoven, no hint of obsession or fragility in his handling of the repeated pleading motifs of the “Tempest” sonata. The music may not have gone stale on him – his sense of rhythm, touch and decorative embroidery remains exceptionally natural – but there’s a hint of self-satisfaction in his polish that threatens to turn his performance into a lecture.
His opening Opus 31 sonata was genial rather than witty, the grazioso slow movement coming across more persuasively than its neighbours, partly because it gave rein to the wonderful bell-like resonance Schiff found in the lower register of his 1921 Bechstein. He refused to let a shred of sentiment infect the “Tempest”, preferring to emphasise its spectral colours. As for the third in the group, Schiff turned it into a masterclass in playfulness and clarity. His “Waldstein”, by contrast, was properly weighty and driven, without quite achieving the wildness Beethoven surely implies.