With his waistcoat and tails, watch-chain, and cloud of grey curls, Andras Schiff walks on stage like a survivor from Imperial Vienna, but his cellist colleague Miklos Perenyi is the pointer to this concert’s real provenance.
Perenyi studied and now teaches at the conservatoire in Budapest which Liszt founded, where Bartok taught, and where Mahler, Strauss, and Puccini bestowed their presence; Schiff studied there too, before making his home in London. The Ferenc Liszt Academy is a living link back to the First Viennese School, and to Beethoven in particular, and Perenyi and Schiff embody that link.
This concert represented the second half of their survey of Beethoven’s complete oeuvre for cello and piano. If that oeuvre seems small, it’s worth remembering that until Beethoven had the idea, nobody of any importance had dreamed of yoking these instruments together. The five sonatas he composed for them spanned his career, and also the period in which the piano was evolving at its fastest. When he wrote his first cello sonata, that instrument’s middle-range sonority drowned the delicate sound of the eighteenth-century piano. But by the time he wrote his last, the balance was reversed, with the big new pianos drowning the strings.
Following an early sonata with a late one was the perfect way to illustrate Beethoven’s growing mastery of this instrumental mix. Written when he was 26, the G minor sonata is in its own way a masterpiece, which these musicians delivered with burning conviction, playing with silence in the Adagio, and letting the Allegro conjure up a towering edifice of sound. The Sonata in D, composed when Beethoven was 45, has the density of all his late work, and its musical thought is tightly-knotted from the start: the tragic grandeur of the middle movement was magnificently realised, as was the whirling complexity of the fugue.
If Schiff now spends more time playing chamber music than playing solo, that is our gain, as he’s one of the most collegial and responsive virtuosi in the business; the symbiosis he’s achieved with Perenyi’s dark warmth can be electrifying, as they demonstrated with the rest of their programme. Beethoven’s variations on Handel’s ‘Maccabeus’ march came in gorgeous apparel, while his Mozart ones had a truly Mozartean charm. Bravo, Budapest.