When a major pianist tackles the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas the results are always fascinating. Daniel Barenboim’s Southbank performances in 2008 may have had such startling blemishes that he refused to let Radio 3 broadcast them, but they still glow majestically in the memory.
The conclusion of Andras Schiff’s cycle at the Wigmore completes another landmark event: if there have been moments of pure perversity, as when he played the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ with his foot hard down on the sustaining pedal from start to finish, there have also been stretches of divine inspiration. And thanks to his Wigmore lecture-demonstrations available on the internet we can continue to digest his philosophy of this music at leisure.
His delivery is slow, his manner that of a joke Viennese professor, but his revelations sometimes have a brilliance which takes the breath away. As, for example, when he plays the frisky little opening from one of the most unassuming middle-period works, then turns its harmonic sequence into a chorale, then transposes it down a third, then gently decorates it – and hey presto, we have the floating introduction to that masterpiece in E major, Opus 109.
This is Schiff’s favourite of all the sonatas, and when it was time for an encore after his penultimate recital he played it - to general astonishment - entire. This was not just a stunt: it was also a way of saying something profound about the gargantuan ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata which had been the last work on the evening’s programme. Schiff’s account of that had been magisterial but strikingly conflicted: by segueing into the calm waters of Opus 109, which was Beethoven’s next work in order of composition, Schiff suggested that he had finally left creative conflict behind and broken through onto the exalted plane where his final three sonatas reside.
And Schiff’s account of these was magnificent. There was no interval, nor even a brief retreat backstage to catch his breath: between one sonata and the next his hands never lost contact with the keyboard, so that the recital became one unbroken train of thought. This time Opus 109 was more muscular and direct – it’s different each time he plays it – thus allowing the religious overtones of Opus 110 to emerge with unusual intensity. The great finale of Opus 111 has seldom sounded so visionary, as Beethoven makes his ecstatic ascent to the starry heavens.