Andr¡s Schiff Scales the Greatest Solo Piano Challenge

Beethoven's Heart, Beethoven's Mind

Andr¡s Schiff
David Bazemore

Soon, Santa Barbara will have the chance to hear a great performer working on an awe-inspiring project. Andr¡s Schiff, one of the world’s leading pianists, will play four Beethoven piano sonatas (Nos. 5-8) as part of a series of concerts that encompass the entire Beethoven cycle in chronological order. This remarkable undertaking has been going on for three years-Schiff began by playing all 32 sonatas in a series of concerts in Z¼rich in 2004, and has been touring the world playing them since.

Schiff is no stranger to cycles-he has played the major keyboard works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Bart³k-but the Beethoven sonatas represent an extraordinary challenge in both technical difficulty and stylistic range. In an email, Schiff explained, “It’s an enormous challenge to play this cycle; that’s why I’ve waited so long with it (until the age of 50). Many young pianists are playing late Beethoven sonatas without having played all the earlier ones. This is wrong, because Beethoven himself was a slow developer. It’s too much to ask from a performer to go through all the sufferings of Beethoven, but we must give ourselves time to learn, study, and digest this great music. It cannot come easily. To me, the main difficulty is that there is not just one kind of Beethovenian character. Only in this programme, if you look at the three Op. 10 sonatas-the first is dramatic and mysterious; the second very funny with a dark melancholic second movement; the third tender and lyrical but it has its ‘Largo e mesto’ slow movement-that is one of the most profound moments in all music. One has to be like a Shakespearean actor who plays Macbeth, Puck, and King Lear on the same evening.”

If you want to hear the complete cycle, you can follow Schiff to Los Angeles or San Francisco, or you can purchase the live recordings that ECM will release in eight separate volumes over the next two years. For Schiff, there’s nothing like a live performance, although he still appreciates recordings: “Recordings aren’t substitutes for live concerts. They are wonderful because one can listen to them repeatedly at home in peace and quiet. Concerts are one and only experiences, and they are communal ones. It’s very important that we listen to music together; the performer is the messenger between the composer and the audiences. Together-if we are lucky-they form a community.”

So why do these concerts and recordings make eight groups? And why are they being performed in chronological order? For Schiff, it’s all about the artistic experience: “The chronological order works-at least for me-so well because the sonatas fit perfectly into eight beautiful programmes. Furthermore, in this way we can follow Beethoven’s own development as a composer, in a single genre of works; it’s a journey of evolution that covers almost three decades.” Join us at the Lobero to hear an extraordinary concert.


CAMA presents pianist Andr¡s Schiff in a recital at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, October 12, at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 963-0761 or visit


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