Who remembers the last time a piano player tried performing all thirty-two of Beethoven's piano sonatas in Ann Arbor?
Yes, that's right. Ursula Oppens tried it back in 1997. The idea was that she'd juxtapose Beethoven's sonatas with works by contemporary American composers — hence the series title Beethoven the Contemporary. It didn't work out. Her first concert was nearly a disaster — Oppens even lost her place a couple of times — and her second was only better in that it wasn't as bad. And that was the last of Beethoven the Contemporary.
Now, ten years later, meet Beethoven the Classic. This time around there's no filler — just thirty-two of the greatest piano sonatas ever written performed in eight concerts over three seasons by one of the finest pianists of his generation, András Schiff. On recordings, the fifty-four-year-old Hungarian has already worked his way through the complete sonatas of Mozart and Schubert, along with nearly all the solo keyboard works of Bach, but he saved Beethoven for his maturity.
It wasn't because Schiff didn't have the chops before — check out his 1986 Goldberg Variations. Anything you want — digital independence, textural clarity, technical fluency — he's got. It wasn't because Schiff didn't have the brains — check out his 1995 Reger-Brahms-Handel disc. Anybody who can make Reger sound so lucid and so luminous has got brains to spare. It wasn't because Schiff didn't have the heart — check out any of his early-1990s Schubert discs. Schiff's deep under the skin of the most poetic of composers. And it sure wasn't because he didn't have the soul — check out virtually every disc he's ever made.
It was that Schiff thought he wasn't ready yet. A flawless technique, brains, heart, and soul just get you in the door with Beethoven. His sonatas need all that plus something more. In a word, they need maturity — the kind of maturity Schiff so generously displayed at the first concert in the series in October when he played the first four sonatas.
The key is that the concert wasn't about Schiff; it was about the music. The thousands of details — the graduated dynamics, the sculpted balances, the poised tempos — none of it was gratuitous. It was for the music. The hundreds of felicities — the way he'd bend a phrase, alter a repeat, balance a chord, or articulate an embellishment — none of it was superfluous. It was for the music. That's the kind of humility you only get with maturity — if you're lucky. And Schiff has clearly been very lucky.
Schiff's next two recitals in this series are at Rackham Auditorium on Sunday and Tuesday, April 20 and 22.
[Review published April 2008]