Lesley Valdes speaks with András Schiff

By jloux on October 6, 2008

Lesley Valdes spoke to András Schiff about his two-year Beethoven Project shortly after he began the performance and recording cycle last season. Schiff met with her shortly before the pianist’s recital with cellist Miklós Perényi for the Philadelphia Chamber Society.

Q: At 53 (note: Mr. Schiff's age at the time of the interview), is this your first or second complete sonata cycle?
A: I’ve done them before, at least half of them. It wasn’t until I was maybe 40 that I felt ready…. There are no shortcuts to Beethoven; you have to be a man. Maybe I’m a late developer…I had done the Schubert cycle…You know, everything Schubert does has a link to Beethoven. Now when I go back to Schubert I see the growth.

Q: Who are your Beethoven mentors?
A: Artur Schnabel. The recordings of course; I never heard him in person.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of this project?
A: The great challenge is the diversity.

Q: Is there any artist to whom you compare Beethoven’s art?
A: Shakespeare. There are so many worlds, characters, dimensions; only Dante may approach the spiritual dimension. Of course in visual art, people have said Michelangelo. I cannot make a musical comparison–even someone as great as Bach does not have the musical diversity of Beethoven. We all know about the periods–early, middle and late–but within these we find the very lyrical, the dramatic, the humorous, the spiritual; nobody else has this range of expression.

Q: What discoveries did you make working on this project?
A: That Beethoven was absolutely a virtuoso of the keyboard and that he could play what he wrote. His sonatas were ahead of their time with pedal, with his use of registers, with dynamics. The Waldstein is an epic, a milestone in the literature. I have read with great delight the composer György Ligeti noting that. It shows a great, great pianist who has begun to think orchestrally, who is inventing sonorities. The Waldstein opens with three pianissimos, and expands to three fortes. Of course, today we think it a virtue that the registers on the modern piano are even from top to bottom, but on the fortepiano they were not. This is very important: the use of registrations and the way Beethoven was extending dynamic range.
The Moonlight is the first time in history that the pedal is used for deliberate poetic effect, though its title is foolishness! A poet and music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, named it. He was sitting in a boat in Lake Lucerne and thought the scene reminded him of the first movement of Beethoven’s sonata in C# minor. It is one of the most spoiled and misunderstood sonatas in history; 99% of pianists ignore the pedal mark. On the modern piano, the sonata doesn’t have to be held all the way down but only one third or one quarter to create a wash, a cloud of sound so that the overtones are heard. This was deliberate for the 1800’s and is an extraordinary innovation. It makes such a contrast for the Scherzo that follows when for the first time you get a clear effect. The tempo marking is also misunderstood. The first movement of the Sonata quasi una fantasia should not be performed slowly, solemnly, sentimentally, but twice as quickly, you should count two in a bar: it is Alla Breve.

Q: Who do you recommend for analysis of the sonatas?
A Donald Tovey and Heinrich Schenker are my favorites. For editions, I mostly use the Henle Verlag.

Q: How do you feel about repeats?
A: Beethoven uses them for creative means. Not to play them is criminal–it changes the intent. Sometimes they return with changes. People who do not play them are like the actors who mess around with someone’s play. If they are going to do this, write their own play!

Q: Beethoven composed some sonatas for his students. Can you suggest which works are good for students or amateurs?
A: Half of the sonatas are playable by amateurs….The sonatas of Opus 49 are a perfect introduction for students….Do not let the chronology fool you. The ones in Opus 2 are actually are more difficult than the sonata Opus 90.

Q: Do you approach Beethoven any differently than Bartok?
A: Bartok for me–as a native of Hungary–was mother’s milk. Not as difficult to approach. But Bartok prepared me, too, because so much of Bartok is influenced by Beethoven. For example, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. One of the main influences for Bartok was Beethoven’s sense of form, sense of structure, especially the sonata form.

Q: You have called the sonata “the perfect form.”
A: The sonata is one of the greatest inventions of mankind…..Beethoven learned it from Haydn and the sonata form is even more important than the fugue, because it connects diverse ideas…in a fugue you develop an idea, a thought, but the sonata connects! The sonata is perfect for expressing contrast, endless varieties of contrasting thought, and Beethoven provides the examples. He doesn’t repeat himself. He sometimes uses the classic examples of three distinct themes. But then we have the Sonata Opus 10, No. 3, in which all the themes and elements are derived from the same cell (monochromatic), which he learned from Haydn–a four-note motive that might have been created by a musical scientist. This is the great thing about the sonata form. In the hands of a great master, it is not just an exercise: it is emotional, it can present dramatic situations. Working out these conflicts, which is what happens in the development sections, we find Beethoven at his greatest. There are never mechanical repetitions, as with other composers. He always saves something new to show us…
Of course, Beethoven also incorporated some of the most beautiful fugues into his sonatas, for example Opus 106, and Opus 110, but when he used this archival form, he achieved heights of expression that were very new. They were not fugues as Bach used them, even in his great Art of the Fugue.

Q: Not everyone presents a Beethoven cycle chronologically. Why are you?
A: They are so interesting and so diverse I can’t do them any other way. They fit together. With Schubert’s, it wasn’t possible; the early ones were too similar. It just didn’t work, but with Beethoven’s it makes sense to present them as they come. I hope people get to know all of them, not just the big, famous ones.

Q: You play and conduct a great deal of Mozart. Are there are distinctions to make between playing his music and Beethoven’s?
A: Beethoven is a very generous composer. With Mozart, if you get a tempo wrong, it revolts. With Beethoven, there is more…

Q: Humanity?
A: I wouldn’t call Beethoven human. He’s not just one of us but the best of us.”