This, Schiff's final installment of his Beethoven cycle, is somewhat of a mixed bag. Every single one of first six installments offered uneven performances. On the lower end of the spectrum sit Schiff's interpretations of the opus 2 set, conceived on an overly broad and lyrical scale. Schiff missed the joy of opus 10/2. The second movement of opus 78 was absolutely devoid of the requisite humor necessary to pull off the work. And opus 31/3 received a particularly wooden performance. On the other hand, Schiff's opus 13 was not only the highlight of the second installment of the cycle, but is also one of the most convincing interpretations of the Pathetique on disc. Like his interpretation of the Pathetique, Schiff's conception of opus 57 eschews the hysteria of so many performances by focusing on the great architecture of the Appassionata. Schiff's finger work in the finales of opus 10/1, opus 27/2, and opus 81a is simply astounding. Schiff seventh outing, a performance of opus 90, 101, and 106, was simply astounding, especially in his transcendent performance of opus 101. The pedal work in the march was simply revelatory while the finale was sublime. Considering his success with opus 101 and 106, I though Schiff's studied and intellectualized interpretations would work well with the final trio of sonatas. However, I leave with a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste.
For one, I personally just do not like Schiff's interpretation of opus 111. It may, of course, be a matter of taste, but I find the performance somewhat whitewashed, plain faced, and four square. Schiff's tempo choice for the introduction is brisk and energized, instilling a sense of expectant drama. Bu the arrival of the allegro proper is a bit matter-of-fact. Schiff seems to minimize Beethoven's variations within the first-theme set, failing to highlight the juxtapositions between the questions and answers. As such, the second theme group looses it sense of transcendence, played here in a particularly straightforward way. There is simply a tepidness to the performance, a generalized lack of tension that pervades the first movement. And it is not Schiff's choice to focus on the movement's clearly classical proportions that keeps this performance so earthbound. Pollini's legendary performance certainly remained faithful to the score; Pollini, however, was able to highlight the drama without sacrificing form. Arrau and Goode's interpretations are more involved as well, while Schnabel, despite some minor finger slips here and there, probably betters them all. At a little over 18 minutes, Schiff's variations are at a flowing tempo and the arietta theme is nicely sung and phrased. However, after the proceeding movement's emotional listlessness, Schiff fails to capture that balm-like quality so necessary for this movement's success. The variations proceed well enough (although more humor in the syncopated third variation would have been nice) and there are some chilling moments in the movement's middle. However, the final passages are less a farewell than simply an end. Perhaps Schiff does not read this valedictory sonata as a goodbye and that certainly is a valid reading. Still, the fact of the matter is that opus 111 is Beethoven's last sonata, written before the Diabelli Variations and the final quartets. Had Beethoven had more to say in this medium, he certainly had the opportunity to pen another sonata. But he did not. And I, like many of the aforementioned pianists, view this work as a farewell and, consequently, prefer it as such.
The overtly more lyrical opus 109 fares somewhat better, as Schiff conjures up some truly magnificent sounds from his instrument. Opus 110 is equally fine, particularly in the delightfully mercurial central allegro. Still, on the whole, these performances are enveloped in an air of disinterestedness. Is the fact that this final recital, unlike the proceeding seven installments, was not recorded with an audience affect the performance on the whole? The electricity that was present in the previous recitals is conspicuously absent in this final go-around. Still, Schiff offers fascinating readings with many moments of touching beauty and a great sense of personal expression. Indeed, especially with the final sonatas, personal preferences will be the deciding determinant as to whether a performance is a winning one or not. And for many, Schiff's studied and intellectualized readings will strike a chord. I simply prefer a more involved performance of opus 111. The final variations should not simply sound beautiful, as they do here, but should shake one to the core. Again, a matter of preference, but a preference that matters, at least to me.