If there's a holy grail for pianists, it is probably Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, Op.106. Those performing the Final Three Sonatas are plentiful these days, but ask any pianist about their Beethovenian inclinations and mostly it'll be the mighty H that they will treat with the most respect/kid gloves/freakin'terror. It is a Missa Solemnis of the keyboard, a Grosse Fugue for ten fingers and one brain. If you hear a good performance - one that shows the intricate mastery of the counterpoint, the searching existential embrace of the adagio and the strength of the core spirit that must win through, to say nothing of the seeds of nearly a century of music that followed it - it can feel a little like seeing a unicorn, so startling, unbelievable and inspiring is the result.
Continuing his series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Andras Schiff, tackling them in chronological order, has reached the late works and put together Opp.90, 101 and 106 in one programme, performed without a break. After bowing a couple of times he sat down to play an encore. What could follow the 'Hammerklavier'?
He stayed silent, smiling to himself and Wilhelm Backhaus's Bechstein for a moment longer than was comfortable, just long enough to think "Andras, nooooo..." - but happily it was a yes, for what comes after 106? Why, of course...109. Whole of it. Light relief, perhaps, after the unicorn? We still remember the time Schiff played the whole Wanderer Fantasy as an encore while giving the complete Schubert Sonatas 15 or 20 years ago. Those attending his Final Three Beethovens on Friday are in for a treat.
It can take a Bach expert to bring out certain truths in late Beethoven. This music isn't primarily emotional, but spiritual, philosophical, wise and human on the grandest scale. All of this Schiff is ready for in a way that few others can match. Sensibly, he waited until his fifties to tackle the complete Beethovens and his tone has deepened, strengthened and broadened to encompass the sonatas' demands. There's seriousness of purpose yet no portentousness in this playing; a powerful spirituality matches a deep affection, and respect is gently tempered with character-enhancing flexibility.
In Op.90 Schiff brought out the tense, unresolvable dialogue of the terse first movement and the Schubertian expansiveness of the songful second (cue a sense that this is where Schubert's D959 finale came from); for Op.101 the contrasts of counterpoint and recitative bounced and sparked off one another. This exquisite work was one of Wagner's favourites, incidentally. Though it seemed out of vogue for a while, I've heard at least two other pianists perform it just in the past few months, and good it is to see it returning in force.
Even a pianist who can memorise and whirl through the complete Bach 48 will admit that the 'Hammerklavier' is a tough call, but in Schiff's hands it is, first and last, all about counterpoint; and it's also a sonata that exists, metaphorically speaking, not in three but eleven dimensions, allowing us to time-travel through the parallel universes of musical creation in a matter of moments. The first movement and scherzo had a fiery, elemental energy that never scorched or scarred the grass beneath the feet; the adagio was a monumental exploration, with many questions and the tragedy invoked of few answers; and the vast final fugue...well, any hats in the hall were duly doffed.
And for the whole sonata you listen in awe as the history of music flashes in front of your ears, feeding in and out: Bach's immeasurable treasure in The Art of Fugue, Brahms's Piano Sonata No.1 and Symphony No.4, Liszt's spiritual questing, Schumann's close-knitted multilayers and wondrous battiness, Wagner's Parsifal (yes), entire structures of Mahler, and the thorniest moments of Schoenberg, everything seems to spring from this mighty well that is the deep, nourishing and insatiable fount of Beethoven's genius.
Odd to think that the word 'Beethoven' apparently means 'beetroot field'. There's an example for the wonders of human potential.
The clarity of Schiff's touch was enhanced by the olde-worlde tone of his ex-Backhaus Bechstein (coming home to what used, of course, to be the Bechstein Hall before British Deutschophobia around the First World War forced a name change to Wigmore). It's a strong, beautiful old piano, with that woody, characterful Bechstein sound (I wrote about it rather fulsomely after the Lucerne concert in November) that offers a distinctive personality in virtually every octave; over the course of the cycle in many cities Schiff has fused his vision with the instrument's tone and brings out the best in it.
Oh yes, and Op.109. A chance to relax in its intimacy, ineffability and transparency after the rigours of the 'Hammerklavier'; yet the wonder remains undiminished as the variations - close indeed in spirit to Schiff's beloved Goldberg Variations - gradually unfold from simple sarabande to floods of dazzling stardust, before enwrapping them again in an almost matter-of-fact recapitulation. As if to say, "Now you know what's hidden inside this modest exterior, you'll never look at anything in quite the same way again."
Here is Andras himself, talking about the 'Hammerklavier' at the Wigmore Hall in his lecture series there (2004-6).