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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Some projects require an attention span that dwarfs the demands of daily broadcasting or journalism: writing a book, or performing in a long-running stage play, or mapping the genome.

And then there's the project that pianist Andras Schiff has been engaged in. For 10 years, he has been immersed in Beethoven. Schiff says he's still learning about him.

Mr. ANDRAS SCHIFF (Pianist): Yes, it's work in progress. And the more you study these pieces, the more frequently you perform them, the deeper you get under the skin of the composer and start to look like Beethoven. Luckily, I'm not deaf yet.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Andras Schiff was born in Budapest 55 years ago. He has now completed recording the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. He has been studying them, lecturing about them, and playing them in concert halls. And when he was in Los Angeles recently to do just that, he took some time to sit down at the piano and talk with us about Beethoven and those 32 sonatas, which Beethoven wrote over the course of 25 years, starting when he was still in his 20s.

Mr. SCHIFF: He came to Vienna in the early 1790s from Germany, where he was born, and these early piano sonatas are like his visiting cards. He composed them and played it himself, and this is how he found his way into Viennese society.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In those very early sonatas, when he is a young man and, as you say, these are his calling cards in Vienna, in effect he is saying there, I know exactly the way people play the piano. I can play the same kinds of pieces and write the same kinds of pieces. But you already hear his individuality in those, or you hear him sounding more like a Haydn protege or somebody imitating Mozart at that point?

Mr. SCHIFF: No, he never imitates anybody. There are certain elements, motifs, you know, like the Mannheim Rocket or the sonata form itself, which he inherited from his masters - Haydn, first and foremost. But his works are already, at this early stage, on a much larger scale with very deeply felt and profound slow movements, which is - just as the second sonata, in A major.

(Soundbite of song, "Piano Sonata No. 2")

Mr. SCHIFF: This is largo appassionato. So it's not an ordinary slow movement, but already much more profound than what you would expect from a young composer of that time.

SIEGEL: How do you, to the extent that you've come to know Beethoven - you say this is a work in progress - how do you reconcile the composer's great capacity for tenderness and for gentleness, sometimes, with a personality that was most unpleasant and very short-tempered?

Mr. SCHIFF: I don't know how unpleasant it was. You have to understand Beethoven's ever-progressing deafness that had manifested itself already around the age of 30. And deafness is the worst thing that could ever happen to a musician.

So for that, we have to forgive Beethoven for his shortcomings in his character. I would have loved to have known Beethoven and to experience this character and personality. However, there are many cliches about Beethoven that the world had accepted: Beethoven the heroic composer, Beethoven the dramatist, the fighter, the Michelangelo of music who wrote pieces like this…

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony No. 5")

Mr. SCHIFF: Or you know…

(Soundbite song, "Symphony No. 3")

Mr. SCHIFF: The fifth symphony or the "Eroica." This is what people love about Beethoven, and they think all the works are like that, and nothing could be further from the truth. He was really capable of great lyricism, of tenderness. If you listen to the beginning of the sonata - Opus 101...

(Soundbite of song, "Piano Sonata No. 28, Opus 101")

Mr. SCHIFF: Music that doesn't really begin, but it is coming from somewhere and full of hesitant questions. It's all phrases ending with question marks.

SIEGEL: In your immersion in Beethoven, do you think that you connect with, well, with an explanation for his creativity? Is it something innate that one in a vast population is born with? Is it a single-mindedness, hard work, genius? Do those words mean anything to you in understanding Beethoven's accomplishments?

Mr. SCHIFF: Yes, all of those are appropriate, but Beethoven is probably, next to Bach, the most human of all the great composers because I consider Mozart one of the very greatest composers. But to me, Mozart was sent from heaven. He's not one of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIFF: Beethoven is very much one of us and the best of us, and he gives a wonderful example of how to achieve something incredible in spite of all the troubles of life, and even so, there is never a feeling of self-pity in Beethoven. And when you get to the last great sonatas and string quartets, I feel there is a great gratitude in them.

When I play the arietta of the last sonata…

(Soundbite of song, "Piano Sonata No. 32")

Mr. SCHIFF: This really is, to me, a musical equivalent of a gracias in a Mass, saying thanks to God.

SIEGEL: Andras Schiff, thank you very much for…

Mr. SCHIFF: Thank you very much, sir.

SIEGEL: …talking with us and playing for us today.

Mr. SCHIFF: Pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Pianist Andras Schiff, talking with us about his Beethoven cycle of recordings. His final performance will be this Sunday at Carnegie Hall. You can hear Andras Schiff play Beethoven's final three piano sonatas in concert at our Web site, nprmusic.org, where you can also find more of our conversation, in which Schiff talks about politics in music.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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