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ECM October 2008

Beethoven, Knaifel and Schumann

Andras Schiff, Ivan Monighetti, Carolin Widmann & Dénes Várjon

An interesting batch of releases from ECM received for review this month.

Andras Schiff's Beethoven Sonatas cycle, live at Zurich, is now completed with Op. 90-111. [ECM New Series Vols. VII & VIII; ECM 1948-49].

I preferred taking these sonatas one at a time on CD to attending Schiff's recitals at Wigmore Hall. His demands there upon recital audiences (and himself) were near sadistic ! Nos. 27-29 (Hammerklavier) were played without a break after advice from the platform just before he started that the needy should quickly avail themselves of the toilet facilities...

Perhaps in due course they may all be brought together as a boxed-set? I am a little surprised that ECM is still tied to jewel-case packaging - newer formats give far more scope for the visual values for which the label is long famous.

The set will rank high amongst the pantheon of great Beethoven performances on record; for greater enjoyment they should be studied alongside Schiff's Royal Academy of Music lecture on the last three sonatas [The Masterclass Media Foundation MMF 001 003]. Covering similar ground, the 36-page insert booklet for the first of these two discs is sensibly printed on thin paper, allowing space for an in-depth discussion of the late sonatas and Schiff's approach to them with Martin Meyer. We are told that the pianos are "Angelo Fabbrini, Pescara', but I understand he is a great piao technician, not actually a maker (for Schiff's discussion of pianos, see "I applaud his contention that pianos should not always be "black and made by Steinway - - "). From the material supplied with these last two volumes, I note that most of them were recorded live "with small corrections from rehearsals". The last sonatas, however were studio recordings in Neumarkt, Germany, a few months after the Zurich performances.

A new Alexander Knaifel disc continues to represent Manfred Eicher's espousal of minimalists. Knaifel's Lamento (1967/87) for solo cello (Ivan Monighetti - well remembered from London's great Almeida Festival in the '80s) is an impressive work of near twenty minutes, punctuated by silences (for contemplation?) and building to an impressive climax.

But The Beatitudes for Rostropovich's 70th birthday, most of it pianissimo, stretches listening patience beyond my limitand must be a very specialised cult taste [ECM New Series 1957]. Unusually, there is no cover picture whatsoever for this Knaifel CD; that itself a statement?

The gem of the month for us has been a wonderful disc of the three Schumann violin sonatas [Carolin Widmann with Dénes Várjon - ECM New Series 2047].

Undeservedly never popular, these three sonatas are riveting in these performances, played here with great sensitivity, flexibly rhythmic nuances and tonal subtlety by this well attuned duo; requiring 'a clairvoyant sense of perspecive, structure and atmospheri dimensions' (Martin Meyer). Finely balanced recording, they leave me eager to hear Widmann and Várjon live if they come to London.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also: Schiff playing Beethoven Sonatas Nos 22-26