There’s no definitive way to play Beethoven’s piano sonatas: there’s an infinite number, as befits this New Testament of classical pianism. Daniel Barenboim’s way, in his Southbank cycle four years ago, may not have been flawless, but it was utterly beguiling.
Andras Schiff has now embarked on a chronological cycle which is just as significant a landmark, but it couldn’t be more different. Instead of the usual Steinway, he’s chosen to play it on an instrument which belonged to one of the great pianists of yesteryear. Wilhelm Backhaus’s Bechstein is ninety years old and sounds it, with a rich bass but a cold and colourless upper register, which means Schiff must work doubly hard for his effects - and those effects have nothing in common with Barenboim’s, because Schiff’s Beethoven has rugged contours and a monumental solidity.
As Schiff has observed, Mozart goes for poetry but Beethoven writes prose, and that is the spirit in which he rendered the contrasts of the first four sonatas. For Schiff the challenge is to convey the meaning of every note, and in his hands each movement became an oration. Firm, clear, and lightly pedalled, the first movement of Opus 2 No 1 crackled with mischief and energy, and the Adagio had steel rather than winsomeness; the slow movement of the second sonata might have been hewn out of a vast block of marble, so unyielding was the sound, but the slow movement of the fourth opened up gracefully like a tree.
Following the dictates of the young Beethoven’s switchback imagination, Schiff offset fury with comedy and grotesquerie, and when keyboard virtuosity was called for delivered it in spades. One could argue with his interpretations, but that’s part of the pleasure, and that’s why I will stay with his exploration.
Oddly, the qualities lacking in Schiff’s Beethoven were present in profusion the following night at Behzod Abduraimov’s Southbank recital. Having praised this 22-year-old Uzbek to the skies after his Wigmore debut, all I can say is that his playing has now passed beyond all the conventional superlatives. His ‘Appassionata’ was a miracle of elegantly-controlled power, his Schubert was exquisite, and his Liszt electrifying. His magically singing touch serves a refined sense of architecture, but what drove the Southbank audience wild was his winning amalgam of fire and poetry.