Exactly two hundred years ago Beethoven was toying with ideas for what turned out to be his last word on piano sonatas. In one respect he proved true to his own self right up to the end: by upsetting the apple-cart of expectations. This final trio abandons the standard sonata form and explores instead variation techniques and the use of fugues as well as delighting in intricate counterpoint. Not only that: in all three cases the concluding slow movements are the longest and carry the greatest emotional intensity, representing in Claudio Arrau’s noble phrase “both a Passion and a Pietà”.

Sir András Schiff © Wigmore Hall
Sir András Schiff
© Wigmore Hall

As if to reinforce Beethoven’s debt to Bach, Sir András Schiff prefaced his Wigmore Hall traversal of Opp.109-111 with the latter’s Prelude and Fugue in E major (from Book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier), immediately pointing up the significance of motoric rhythms and shifting harmonies in the works which then followed on, each without a break. This was going to be a celebration of formality. 

Schiff is one of the least demonstrative of pianists, yet he can conjure up almost out of nowhere a huge dynamic scale and variation in tonal colour. An aristocratic and upright presence at the keyboard, he approaches the music that he plays with a high degree of seriousness, in which each note is accorded its full value in the overall scheme of things. The hands are evenly placed and even in fortissimo passages no additional force seems to be applied. With Schiff there are no smudges and certainly no scurrying or scampering. And his pedalling is one of the best in the business. 

By stressing the classical nature of much of the writing Schiff repeatedly drew attention to aspects of structure and formality. In the Op.109 sonata even the brief Prestissimo middle movement had a very deliberate Bach-like tread to it, and in the concluding Andante, which normally emerges with an outpouring of ardent feeling, the left hand firmly emphasised the counterpoint in Variation III while the fugue in Variation V was delivered with an utter sense of inevitability. 

Sir András Schiff © Wigmore Hall
Sir András Schiff
© Wigmore Hall

In the Op.110 sonata I was frequently reminded of the polished marble of great and grand Doric columns gleaming in the early-morning sunlight: the architectural edifices that Schiff built were solid and imposing. Nothing could or would ever shake these foundations. However, I did find myself yearning for a slightly slower tempo to take account of the opening Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo marking, and wished more prominence had been given to the sforzati of the middle movement. Nonetheless there were moments of sheer radiance: he launched the extended Adagio with a succession of tenderly inflected phrases that glistened with eye-catching clarity, and the way he slipped almost imperceptibly into the Fuga section was one of the many delightful quicksilver moments in these last sonatas where the seamlessness of all his transitions repaid dividends. 

Schiff the master-architect was again much in evidence in the C minor Sonata. No impetuous emotion was allowed to cloud the quiet dignity of utterance, the journey to empyrean territory as majestic and inexorable as a solemn procession of pilgrims. Having heard some thrilling accounts of Variation III in the final movement, in which Beethoven as the originator of boogie-woogie was celebrated, I was a little disconcerted to hear Schiff turn back into the 18th century and rejoice in echoes of the gigue. But then this was an evening’s music-making in which you could have been forgiven for thinking that Ludwig was Johann Sebastian’s grandson or, at the very least, his great-grandson.