Music School students explore Beethoven's sonatas, taking their cues from renowned pianist András Schiff

BY BETHANY GIBBONS AND BEN VANWAGONER
Daily Arts Writers
Published April 7, 2009

Pianists in studios and music schools often collaborate to perform all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas. But just one man performing all 32 over a two-year period? That's exactly what the ambitious pianist András Schiff is doing.

Ariel Bond/Daily

This weekend, the celebrated Schiff will give the 7th and 8th concerts in his Beethoven Sonata Project at Hill Auditorium, presenting sonatas 27 through 32. It’s a daunting enterprise. Sonata 29 is the famed — and feared — “Hammerklavier,” Beethoven’s longest and, some say, most difficult piano sonata. Each sonata is experimental, distinct and an undeniably masterful accomplishment.

But if anyone is up to the task, it’s Schiff. He’s a Grammy award-winner, a star-quality interpreter and a dexterous virtuoso. Echoing his current project, he tackled all of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos between 1999 and 2005. And, as is easily presumed, he has no trouble with difficult technique. His performances are precise, impeccable and, in the words of The New York Times, "luminary."

The University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance has endeavored to take the great leap in exploring Beethoven's sonatas, stretching boundaries with the Sonata Obsession series. In the past two years, the Obsession series has featured graduate students from the piano performance program playing, as a group, all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. And the students have gone one step further: They’ve added all the rest of the sonatas — those performed not just with piano, but with other instruments as well. The idea to do a parallel (but expanded) series to Schiff’s came from Steven Whiting, associate dean for graduate studies, and Logan Skelton, professor of piano performance at the School of Music.

Gjergji Gaqi, a School of Music graduate student, is one of these performers. He played the piano part in Opus 16, Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds and Opus 102 No. 1, Cello and Piano Sonata in C Major as well as performing solo for Opus 90, Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor.

For Gaqi, the series is a chance to learn and perform Beethoven from a new perspective. Instead of playing strictly piano sonatas, Gaqi also had the opportunity to play some of the less popular collaborative sonatas like the Cello and Piano Sonata in C Major.

“It’s a different experience because you’re collaborating,” Gaqi said. “In solo you may take a lot of liberties, but in collaborating, I needed to listen to what (the cellist) was doing so that our music together was working and reach some sort of agreement. It's important to create something that is convincing for the audience.”

Like Schiff, students are performing Beethoven’s works in chronological order, from earliest to latest. It’s a different approach — often, performers will include an earlier sonata, a middle sonata and one of the later, greater masterpieces. They also often incorporate at least one popular “nicknamed” sonata (the Pathétique, the Appassionata, etc.) somewhere in the program in order to appeal to the crowd.

By playing all of the sonatas in chronological order, Schiff presents the “strongest possible sense of Beethoven’s gradual maturation and development as a composer, using this genre as a window. And you can’t get that kind of picture if you have an early, middle, late work on every program,” Whiting said.

Schiff's audience also gets a chance to hear sonatas rarely played anywhere else.

It’s a different window into Beethoven’s works — which is what classical musicians, especially students, strive to achieve with every piece of music they encounter. Schiff is an innovator, producing older music in creative new ways in his long series. And through his innovation, he is highlighting and exposing Beethoven’s original innovation as a composer.

In series, Beethoven's subtle experimentation in musical form becomes more obvious. It’s also obvious when he develops a problem or technique through a series of works, or abandons an experiment as unsuccessful or uninteresting. Understanding how Beethoven's works progressed from his early efforts to his late masterpieces is a great undertaking, but the series context makes it a more manageable task.

"Chronological order is the first step (in) beginning to think about causation," Whiting said. "We have to know what happened first and what happened second to see what happened between them."

The Sonata Obsession series capitalizes on the understanding process by filling in the blanks between the piano sonatas.

Beethoven certainly didn't compose absentmindedly, nor did he write only piano sonatas at any given time. He often worked on pieces of several different types at once. Piano sonatas, collaborative sonatas and even symphonies may have evolved concurrently.

By having students perform the works that fit between the piano sonatas, the Sonata Obsession series makes a broader look possible and provides more insight into the texture of Beethoven's work for piano.

The Sonata Obsession series also adds other instruments to the sonatas, opening up yet another Pandora’s box of opportunities and insights. Not only do the other instruments make it possible to see Beethoven’s progression in terms of the piano sonata, but they also annotate everything else that was going on in his head: cello parts, brass quintet parts, etc. Keeping these different instruments in mind affects how the students hear their own piano performances as well.

“It gave me a better understanding of what Beethoven was thinking,” Gaqi said.

Gaqi spoke with enthusiasm about his experience playing several of the sonatas. Working with the wind quartet in Opus 102 influenced his perception of the piano sonata, Opus 90, allowing him to hear the possibility of the wind instruments even in his solo performance. Cultivating an awareness of Beethoven's musical context is vital for understanding the "causation" Whiting hoped to uncover.

Similarly, Whiting expressed the benefit of listening to Schiff's interpretations.

“(Schiff’s approach to music) is characterized by a great deal of propriety, an incredible range of tone colors and a minimum of histrionics and sustaining pedal," he said. "He’s not giving you mush, but clarity. He’s about to confront the foremost massive sonatas in the 32, and it’s going to be a particular pleasure to hear what a performer that’s so associated with the music of J.S. Bach is going to do with all the fugal material.”

For Whiting and his students, the Beethoven series may be just the beginning.

“I’d like to do something with Haydn’s string quartets,” he said. “I’d love that.”