Originally published on March 30, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
On October 20, 2008 I wrote a blog post entitled “The First Monument,” giving an account of András Schiff’s performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 57 in F minor (“Appassionata”) in the course of his series of concerts covering all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Last night at Davies Symphony Hall Schiff undertook the “second monument,” the Opus 106 in B-flat major (“Hammerklavier”). I had been looking forward to this performance, even to the point of blogging about my expectations; and last night I was reminded that high expectations often lead to disappointment. Since my explanation for that disappointment led to a long and involved journey far beyond the scope of a review, I chose to take that journey on my blog, using this space to account for the virtues of the rest of last night’s program.
Opus 106 was preceded by the E minor Opus 90 and A major Opus 101 sonatas, both of which are highly unconventional in their respective formal structures. (All three sonatas were played without an intermission, followed by two encores, the BWV 903 “Chromatic” fantasia and fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 574 “Eine kleine Gigue” in G major.) Opus 90 is the lighter of the two, consisting of a relatively traditional sonata movement followed by a rondo. The tempo marking for the first movement, mit Lebhaftigkeit und Durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck, has more to do with feeling (Empfindung) and expression (Ausdruck) than pace; and Schiff has a skill in teasing out these introspective qualities without sacrificing the technical demands of the structure. While the sonata opens energetically (mit Lebhaftigkeit), the following rondo progresses to a coda in which the last thoughts of the theme almost dissolve into silence. This is a Beethoven with whom we can sympathize, in contrast to subsequent brash Romantic stereotypes of him.
Opus 101 is more of an experimental adventure. From a structural point of view, it seems more interested in teasing out small ideas, playing with them, and later reflecting on them than in the usual formal traditions. There is also an emphasis on mood swings between relaxed (and sometimes nostalgic) reflection and bursts of energy, first in the form of a march (definitely not for parade purposes) and a final contrapuntal allegro, which, after many false starts and stops eventually culminates in a pianistic blaze of glory. This is what learning theorists, such as Lloyd Rieber, like to call “serious play,” although Pete Seeger took a less dignified approach when he called it “goofing-off.” Schiff approached the performance with just the right balance between the “serious” and the “play.” Thus, any disappointments I may have had with Opus 106 were more than adequately compensated by the rest of his program.