The Beethoven Piano Sonata Series: Idil Biret and Andras Schiff - Sonata No. 1 in F minor

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Note to Readers: This column is switching gears to review the complete Andras Schiff and Idil Biret Beethoven Sonata cycles. One sonata will be addressed at a time. This will be more orderly than trying to match the respective volumes as first written. An overview article on these sonata cycles can be found here.

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No.1 was written with his Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3, in 1795, the entire Op. 2 being dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn. The composer was youthful and exuberant in the four-movement sonata which kicks off with a Mannheim Rocket (a swiftly ascending passage expressing a rising arpeggiated melodic line), a technique used often by Mozart. This propels the Allegro movement to its logical sonata conclusion. The Adagio expresses a nervous sweetness, a melancholy that folds well into the following Minuetto-Allegretto. The finale Prestissimo mows down all in its path.

Andras Schiff

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Volume 1—Sonatas Opp. 2 and 7

ECM

2011

Beethoven was a hinge composer existing between the Classical and Romantic Era, transforming them both. In the parlance of warfare, it is a certain strategy that an air offensive kicks off a battle to "soften the earth for the ground troops." This is what Beethoven was doing during this intra-era period, using Classical techniques to make way for the Romantic musical language. Thus, it should be no surprise that interpretation of Beethoven today can be approached from the Classical (Haydn, Mozart) side or the Romantic (Brahms, Wagner) side.

Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff covered the better part of Bach and the Mozart piano sonata and concertos before taking on the Beethoven canon. This experience informed Schiff's Beethoven in Classical manner. Schiff resists all Romantic affectation while carefully recasting the Classical without abandoning it altogether. His playing is bright with a carefully modulated left hand that reveals what Horowitz often tried to emote from Beethoven—a quiet consonance.

Schiff's introductory Mannheim Rocket can easily be imagined as presented in Mozartian strings. He approaches the Adagio not unlike the adagio from Mozart's Calrinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, a plaintive mix of hopefulness and resignation. Schiff gains speed in the Minuetto before reaching take-off speed in the concluding Prestissimo. Shiff's is a Beethoven rendered conservatively, one that may be more historically accurate than recent cycles, informed by the giants' shoulders bruised by Beethoven's demanding feet.

Idil Biret

Idil Biret: Beethoven Edition 1—Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1

Naxos

2011

Turkish pianist and Naxos mainstay Idil Biret approaches her Beethoven from the Liszt- von Bulow side of things (where she dials down the Liszt flamboyance from 11 on a scale of 10 to a more manageable 4 or 5). Certainly Romantic, Biret nevertheless retains a classical precision manifested in her even articulation of the composer's plan. Her tempi are uniformly slower than Schiff's throughout the sonata, her total time 24:42 compared with Schiff's 21:03. Biret makes good use of her added time to more fully flesh out the personality of the younger Beethoven.

Biret's Allegro is paced in a determined manner with an even disposition. The Adagio is beautifully toned and ornamented at a tempo that makes Schiff's sound hurried (Biret's relaxed 6:16 versus Schiff's brisk 4:21). She remains as relaxed during the Minutetto, her playing flowing effortlessly from one theme to the next with an almost anti post-Bach Glenn Gould approach, one with a light touch when necessary and never overbearing in the piano sections.

Like the remainder of the sonata, Biret's finale is measured and precise, with no hint of rush. She is insuring a complete airing of the score so as not to miss one bit of inspiration. Her playing walks that thin line of proper propulsion against a lagging tempo. The middle section is thoughtful and pretty after the stormy introduction. Biret captures the tension in Beethoven's writing that pits the cerebral against the emotional: a constant and pleasant anxiety that resolves very nicely in the coda. This is powerful and important early Beethoven.

Tracks and Personnel

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, Volume 1—Sonatas Opp. 2 and 7

Tracks: I. Allegro; II. Adagio; III. Minuetto-Allegretto; IV. Prestissimo.

Personnel: Andras Schiff: piano.

Idil Biret: Beethoven Edition 1—Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1

Tracks: I. Allegro; II. Adagio; III. Minuetto-Allegretto; IV. Prestissimo.

Personnel: Idil Biret: piano.

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