Beethoven: Piano Sonata Op 111; Diabelli Variations; Bagatelles Op 126 – review

András Schiff
(ECM, two CDs)

There are two sets of Diabelli Variations in András Schiff's collection of Beethoven's last three piano works, both in their very different ways period performances. On the first of the two discs, which also includes the C minor Sonata Op 111, Schiff plays the instrument he used for his memorable Beethoven cycle at the Wigmore Hall last season, a Bechstein, made in 1921, on which Wilhelm Backhaus regularly gave recitals and made recordings. On the second, which follows the Diabelli with the Op 126 Bagatelles, he plays a fortepiano made in Vienna by Franz Brodmann around 1820; Schiff now owns the instrument and has lent it to the Beethoven-haus in Bonn, where the recordings were made.

Both discs are enthralling. In the sleeve notes Schiff makes an eloquent case for resisting what he sees as the "globalisation" of piano music, in which everything is played on a Steinway. "In the right hands [it] is a marvellous piano," he says, "but not for everything. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert require something more than power, brilliance and cool objectivity." Anyone who heard the Wigmore recitals will recognise the cool clarity of the sound the Bechstein makes and the elegance Schiff achieves with it, whether in the transcendence of the last movement of Op 111 or the quicksilver changes of mood in the variations, but it's the version of the Diabelli on the 19th-century instrument that is the more remarkable.

That performance revels in the very lack of homogeneity in the soundworld of the instrument itself, with its distinctly different character in each register, and with the ability to change those characteristics using the four pedals. Balances and perspectives shift constantly within the music, and Schiff exploits the effects quite wonderfully – thinning the sound to a silvery thread with the una corda pedal, producing a wonderfully veiled quality in the middle registers with the moderator, or a snarling buzz in the bass with the bassoon. The whole world of the variations opens out, and though it is worlds away in sensibility from the whistles and bells of the extrovert fortepiano version by Andreas Staier that came out last year, Schiff's account is at least as revelatory.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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