October 21, 2007
Grown-Up Enough for Beethoven
By JAMES R. OESTREICH
ANN ARBOR, Mich. IT might seem a natural thing to do, and from a musical point of view it is. From a box-office point of view the logic pales, and in a day when ticket sales rule so much, perhaps only a pianist of the stature of Andras Schiff could hope to get away with it.
Over the next two seasons Mr. Schiff is playing all 32 Beethoven sonatas here, on the University of Michigan campus, as well as in San Francisco and Los Angeles and, starting Sunday afternoon, at Carnegie Hall. As imposing a challenge as it is, doing all the sonatas in a stretch, even a much shorter stretch than that, is not novel. Mr. Schiff himself has already done them all in 15 European cities, and live recordings of one of those cycles, in the Zurich Tonhalle from 2004 to 2006, are being released on ECM New Series.
What is remarkable is that he does them in chronological order. For maximum box-office appeal, you would expect the programs to mingle the unfamiliar with the well known, the early works with the late ones: each evening a rounded and polished gem. But Mr. Schiff is taking them as they come, and over a long period of time.
So here is the problem: Beethoven’s sonatas for piano, and for piano and violin, are prime examples of repertories in which nicknames count, rivaled only, perhaps, by Haydn’s symphonies and string quartets. One of the most overworked record packagings of all time, surely, is the hallowed combination of Beethoven’s “Pathétique,” “Appassionata” and “Moonlight” piano sonatas. (Nowadays CDs allow room for a fourth: the “Pastoral,” say, or the “Waldstein.”)
But Mr. Schiff’s two Carnegie programs this week barely touch on nicknames, offering only lesser-known early sonatas bearing nothing but opus numbers, until the “Pathétique” (No. 8, Op. 13) arrives at the end, on Wednesday evening. Then there is a long wait until April.
“I think that the no-nickname sonatas are not less great than the nicknamed ones,” Mr. Schiff said here early this month, still jet-lagged from his flight from Europe and nursing a bit of a cold on the morning after his first Ann Arbor recital. But he acknowledged the problem of selling tickets to listeners looking for anchors and expressed sympathy for the marketers who had to deal with it.
He harked back to a time in Japan when he had played Beethoven’s violin sonatas with the venerable fiddler Sandor Vegh. “There were three evenings,” Mr. Schiff said, “and one had the ‘Spring’ Sonata in it, one the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, and the third one had, to me, the greatest violin sonata, Opus 96, but it doesn’t have a nickname. And the third one was the only one that was not sold out.”
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