Andras Schiff: Scaling Beethoven's Sonatas

Schiff Plays the Hammerklavier

Andras Schiff has called Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 ("Hammerklavier") "a monument of impenetrability" with moments of humor and "unfathomable depths of tragedy and loss."

Pianist Andras Schiff i i

Andras Schiff has joined the pantheon of pianists who have recorded all 32 of Beethoven's technically daunting piano sonatas. Fritz Etzold hide caption

itoggle caption Fritz Etzold
Pianist Andras Schiff

Andras Schiff has joined the pantheon of pianists who have recorded all 32 of Beethoven's technically daunting piano sonatas.

Fritz Etzold

Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas are monumentally challenging works, and classical listeners pay a lot of attention to any pianist who performs them all.

Andras Schiff has taken up the challenge. He has been performing the sonatas for the last several years — and, with the release of his new album, has recorded all 32.

I've been waiting years for Schiff to record one sonata in particular.

I heard Schiff play the Sonata No. 29 — also called the "Hammerklavier" — some 15 years ago in Frankfurt and was overwhelmed by the performance. I was living in Germany then, and I still remember that fast ride home on the autobahn, speeding through the dark, my senses awake to everything around me.

Sitting back and listening to Schiff's sweeping "Hammerklavier" now puts me again into that heightened state. And this new recording offers something more: a closer listen to the details of how Schiff creates his overall performance. A good example is Schiff's unerring sense of pacing in the choppy melody that opens the second movement scherzo.

Schiff shows pure poetry in the third movement — no musical frills here. The music begins in slow meditation and eventually opens to let light in. Schiff describes it as "music of inner sorrow," but there's no wallowing in emotional depths. No ego. Here's a pianist who knows that the performance is really about Beethoven's music, not him.

Many pianists are overwhelmed by the technical difficulty of the "Hammerklavier." But Schiff plays with a confidence beyond technique. His understanding of the work allows him a spontaneous unfolding of its fierce logic and astonishing drama. Listening to this performance, the image of Schiff himself fades for me, leaving only Beethoven's notes and that feeling of moving so fast in the night.

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