BBC Proms reviews

Prom 64: András Schiff’s Beethoven piano sonatas keep the audience transfixed throughout

4 September 2022

All Beethoven, all the time from András Schiff in the Albert Hall.

Prom 64

András Schiff (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Not only will András Schiff think nothing of performing Book II of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893 (over two hours of music) without pause, but he would find it impossible to play it in any other way. This is because maintaining continuity lies at the very heart of his performance practice, and it is a trait that served him well in this Prom comprising Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas as he kept himself and the audience completely ‘in the zone’ for the entire 75 minutes.

While one could argue that breaking up the Bach could only ever be detrimental and done for practical reasons as it is ultimately a single entity, these sonatas can each stand on their own. However, as Schiff more than proved, this does not mean we cannot gain more from hearing them played together without pause. Composed between 1820 and 1822, Beethoven sometimes worked on them simultaneously, and, although each occupies a distinct soundworld, some elements are common across them, such as the employment of fugues and variation form, while in each the composer juxtaposes seemingly incongruous elements. It was such similarities that came across strongly when it would have been harder to detect them if hearing the pieces on separate occasions, and more difficult to feel them even if there had only been a short break for applause between each.

Schiff’s playing felt of a copybook standard, although that should not imply it was lacklustre or merely good from a technical viewpoint. From the opening ‘Vivace ma non troppo’ to the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, the precision he displayed emphasised the compact nature of the first movement. Then throughout the piece the control he exerted was absolutely necessary to make sense of the often disparate demands that Beethoven placed on the left and right hands. The composer was deliberately pushing the boat out with some of his keyboard-sprawling figurations, but, as Schiff proved, the act of going to town on them is equally the act of making them work from a musical perspective. Thus, he made ‘tumbling’ down the keyboard and ‘looping’ around to elicit a far lighter sound at the top feel like one continuous and coherent ‘swoop’. His ability to temper the regularly light right hand, so at times the sound possessed an echo-like quality, with the often heavier, and sometimes galloping, left was masterly so that he generated a sense of excitement as if the piece’s frequent ‘outbursts’ were only just exceeded by his ability to control them.

“Schiff’s playing felt of a copybook standard…”

Prom 64

András Schiff (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Although not quite a sell out, this concert was far fuller than most solo performers on a Sunday morning at the Proms manage to achieve, and it was a moving sight to see the packed hall remain respectfully silent at the end of the piece as the audience saw Schiff never leave his performance mode. A little applause did follow his completion of the Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 but this was only because it was so accomplished as it brought out its warmth, humour, despair and optimism to the full, that some people clearly felt it impossible not to acknowledge the fact in some way.

In Beethoven’s two movement Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 Schiff elicited all of the contrasts in form, key and tempo extremely well. Once again, the emphasis was on how all of the different moods could be exploited in order to create a coherent whole. In this respect, the introduction of the ‘call of fate’ theme was particularly effective as, although it stood out for the monumentality of the gesture, it was made to work in the context of all that was occurring around it. The beauty of the playing also ensured that this recital ended with the same sense of fulfilment as the close to Beethoven’s final sonata itself. There may have been little to no applause until that point, but the reception Schiff received once all the playing was over spoke volumes about what everyone had just witnessed on a highly memorable Sunday morning at the Royal Albert Hall.

• This Prom, like all others, was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is currently available on BBC Sounds.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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More on András Schiff
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Prom 64: András Schiff’s Beethoven piano sonatas keep the audience transfixed throughout
Sir András Schiff @ Wigmore Hall, London