Beethoven Sonatas / Schiff, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar -->

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Andras Schiff has conquered a pianistic Everest; the complete Beethoven keyboard sonatas, played chronologically. It has taken more than three years. For his final assault, the last three sonatas, he performed all three in a programme without interval twice at the Wigmore in a single evening to two packed houses.

In a lecture-recital delivered to a rapt audience the previous day, Schiff underlined the similarities of extraordinary invention at the end of their lives of Mozart (the three symphonies) and Schubert (the three piano sonatas) with Beethoven, who worked simultaneously on his three sonatas and the Missa Solemnis. The keyboard sonatas feel imbued with a spirituality and depth, and in a performance as assured as Schiff's, it is Beethoven's creativity that leaves one bewildered.

Schiff began Op 109 dreamily innocent, but Beethoven tosses aside apparent convention in favour of dramatic and chromatic improvisation dressed up as sonata form. The two modes compete. Schiff had chosen his Steinway Fabbrini for these late sonatas rather than the mellower Bösendorfer used for more lyrical sonatas. And in the second Prestissimo movement it shone brightly - almost too brightly - providing tremendous contrast.

Schiff is a celebrated performer of Bach's keyboard works. Time and again Beethoven's contrapuntal writing, played by Schiff with decisive clarity and rhythmic precision, underlined the continuity of Bach to Beethoven. Schiff believes that Beethoven must have known Bach's Goldberg Variations as well as the John Passion, from which he believes Beethoven quotes in Op 110.

In a revelatory concert, Schiff's heart-breaking transitions to the "Arioso dolente" in Op 110 remain, as does his (unusual) unbridled passion in Op 111, so urgently pointing up the strangenesses in the writing - the dynamics, sforzati, distance between hands, improvisatory freedom.

Although greatly deserved, the final applause jarred. No doubt Schiff, although keeping his hands above the keyboard, wondered whether applause would occur after each sonata. It almost didn't after Op 109, though what little there was stopped Schiff in his tracks, but there was none after Op 110. Would that a silent, standing, hanging of heads had been the final audience reaction.