Andras Schiff's Beethoven cycle seems to defy classification. Considering this artists unanimous success as a sensitive and intelligent accompanist, a leading interpreter of Schubert and Mozart, and in light of his graceful, lyric readings of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach, it seems as if it would be safe to assume Beethoven's lyric earlier works would respond resplendently to Schiff's delicate touch. But to the contrary, in the first installment of the cycle, Schiff delivered full-bodied approaches that did not always suite the sonatas particularly well. Although the 1st and 2nd sonatas were delightful, a tighter perspective would have yielded a more coherent opus 2, No. 3 and more energy a stronger opus 7. The inconsistencies are still present in this release, but, again, where you would least expect it. Schiff delivers a shockingly convincing Pathetique, one strong on classical musical argument and filled with fresh spontaneity. As for the opus 10 sonatas, they are more of a mixed bag.
Although Schiff claims in the liner notes that he reads the F major sonata as a comic work, little of that humor actually translates into his reading. Schiff draws little humor from the coquettish flourishes that open the piece, nor do the petulant minor outbursts create any real sense of tension and release. The development zips by far too quickly and he creates nothing comic of the false recapitulation. Worse still, the finale lacks any sense of warmth or charm in Schiff's hands. He certainly makes the most of the counterpuntal nature of the work, but the proceeding has a wooden, almost perfunctory ennui that completely misses the mark. Conversely, the allegretto is delightful. Schiff magically coaxes a dark, murky tone from his instrument that is rapt with tension. Best of all, that very tension transitions into the trio magnificently, which incidentally features some of the best playing on the disc. He makes the most of music's somber poignancy, making the return of the minuet theme all the more haunting.
Opus 10, No. 3 features some wonderfully introspective playing from Schiff in the largo, taken at a flowing tempo which allows Schiff to articulate the various moods effectively. The menuetto, just shy of three minutes, is pure charm and the rondo appropriately punchy. The first movement is a bit more problematic, featuring wonderful technical precision married to lively tempos, but marred by a slightly mannered development. Schiff slight hesitations are just that, slight, but they are apparent enough to become tiresome after repeated listenings.
Surprisingly, the two c-minor sonatas are the best on the disc. Schiff (thankfully) trades in his delicate touch and somewhat mannered phrasing for strong rhythms and a sturdy tone.
The first of the opus 10 sonatas responds quite well to the instrument's brighter timbre. He creates some wonderfully dark sonorities in the opening allegro, although Schiff's clipping of the arpeggio theme is slightly aggravating. The second movement goes well enough, although suffering slightly due to the brittle tone in the upper register. The finale, however, is quite delightful. Schiff's nimble technique is dazzling as he navigates between the various moods, especially in the particularly punchy major episodes. By underplaying the coda, Schiff adds a tremendous amount of tension to the closing passages, unusually uneasy behind the mask of a major key.
The "Pathetique" is uniformly spectacular, his best conception within the cycle so far. The sonata opens with an appropriate gravitas that functions within the classical structural parameters of the work. The allegro has great vitality, energy, and a fresh spontaneity that is all together refreshing. And although I personally feel repeating the introduction with the exposition robs the development of some of its shocking novelty, so convincing is Schiff's commitment to his case that it does not bother me one bit. The freshness of the first movement ebbs over into the wonderfully flowing second movement. Schiff shakes off the romantic patina that this movement has amassed over the years, which makes the listening experience akin to seeing a newly cleaned and restored painting. Schiff's usual sensitivity of tone and tasteful accoutrements only add to this gem. Best of all, Schiff reads the finale as a classical rondo in the truest sense, making no attempt to instill grand drama where Beethoven intended none. The episodes fly by with delightful buoyancy, Schiff adding refined embellishments with each return of the rondo theme. The churlish clipping of the final chords is slightly gauche, but on the whole, Schiff succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of delivering a fresh "Pathetique" read (correctly) not as a romantic milestone but rather as a classical sonata struggling to find a voice for Beethoven's developing style.
All in all, the good out weigh the bad in this second release from Andras Schiff, whose cycle, if anything, will be musically fascinating. Although I will never warm to the harsh, overly-bright tone of his instrument, only exacerbated by the microphone placement, Schiff has more than enough to say to warrant adding this release to your collection. And while at times he can sound distant, calculated, or just plain bizarre, he is always saying something interesting, defending his choices with utmost conviction. Fascinating.