A pianist who specialises in the classical period is like a mountaineer who always has Everest in his sights. Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, spanning the composer’s life from his earliest years to his closing masterpieces, never cease to be one of the ultimate challenges, however often a performer may have scaled their summit.
The Hungarian pianist András Schiff has played the sonatas at the Wigmore Hall before in 2004-06. On that occasion he also gave lectures, and recordings of those are available on the Wigmore Hall website – a useful introduction for anybody who is going along to hear him play the complete cycle over seven programmes which started on Monday.
This new cycle is unlikely just to be a repeat of the old. From sampling the recordings of the lectures, it is clear that Schiff’s illustrations at the piano took a simpler view of the music then. Now his performances promise to be more characterful, certainly more abrasive. Faced with such rich material, no pianist could simply offer the same again.
Schiff likes to play the sonatas in chronological order, so as to follow a logical musical journey. This first programme – the three Op.2 sonatas, followed by the grand Op.7 – stayed within the composer’s early period, where Schiff’s long experience in the classical repertoire and earlier pays dividends. From Bach, he brings the clarity of the part-writing (the opening of the C Major, Op.2 No.3, sounded like a string quartet), and from Haydn the wit and detail (the characterful little flourishes that opened Op.2 No.1). All this helps give Schiff’s Beethoven a personality of its own – quite different from, say, the warmer, early Romantic playing of Paul Lewis in his Beethoven at the Wigmore.
Another defining characteristic is the piano itself. Schiff is playing a 1921 Bechstein, once used by Wilhelm Backhaus, and gets from it a bright, percussive sound. Beethoven’s jokes come with a sharp dig in the ribs and some of the louder moments have an aggressive power that is arguably too much in the Wigmore’s excellent acoustics. If this is young Beethoven, relishing the rough-and-tumble, it will be interesting to see where Schiff’s cycle goes from here.