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Moonlight Trapped in the Sonata Form?

Sonatas come in many shapes throughout the history of music. The name Sonata is derived from the Italian word “suonare” (to sound) as opposed to “Cantata” (to sing). Although we find many single movement pieces from the Baroque period and mid-18th century named sonatas, it is not until Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven develop a 3 (or 4) movement disposition that we can talk about the term ”sonata form”. They all added extra movements in order to create what Leonard Bernstein later explained: “… perfect three-part balance, and second, the excitement of its contrasting elements. Balance and contrast — in these two words we have the main secrets of the sonata form.”

The popular classical form

For both Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven it is still the first movement in the sonata which stands paramount in the construction. Additionally a slow movement and a fast movement could be added, each having a specific function in the musical argument of the complete piece. Beethoven eventually develops the form and strengthens each movement’s own specific character and even re-disposes the number of movements and alters the fast-slow-fast disposition of the Classial era.

How can we explain this immense popularity of the sonata for over two hundred years? What makes it so satisfying, so complete?
In Beethoven’s hands the piano sonata underwent a drastic development from his early works inspired by Haydn and Mozart until his late experimental and bold works with a much freer concept of form and drama. The term “sonata form” appears in the mid-19th century and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were the basis for the analysis.

The Moonlight Sonata is different

There are no specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia (“sonata in the manner of a fantasy”), but the layout of no. 2 (the Moonlight Sonata) does not follow the traditional fast–slow–fast. Instead, the sonata proposes an end-weighted journey, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. The sonata consists of three movements:
Adagio sostenuto-Allegretto-Presto agitato
The name “Moonlight Sonata” comes from the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, five years after Beethoven’s death.

Beethoven: Sonata Sonata Op. 27 no. 2, piano sheet music:
Moonlight Sonata piano sheet music

Two distinctly different interpretations

Here we listen to a recent performance of the Moonlight Sonata by pianist Yundi Li from a popular TV-show in Japan. His interpetation is quite traditional with a slow and beautiful rendition of the first movement while his last movement is very clean and polished – indeed not one of the more wild and stormy versions we have heard. But that is perhaps what to expect by Yundi Li, who is a former International Chopin Competition winner (2000).

On the other hand we have Andras Schiff who, in recent years, has proposed a completely different interpretation of the first movement for three resons:
1. The nickname “Monlight Sonata” is nonsense.
2. Since the meter is “Alla breve” we should count two beats (half notes) per bar, calling for a quite light and quick tempo.
3. Beethoven writes in the beginning of the piece “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” which means “This whole movement must be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers. (i.e. with right pedal down). If that means that we should keep the right pedal constantly down throughout the piece or to change pedal in a traditional way when harmony changes is the big question for debate.
Listen to Schiff’s lecture below for a more detailed description.

Yundi Li plays Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 no. 2 (from Japanese TV 2014)
1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Andras Schiff:
Lecture about the Moonlight Sonata (Wigmore hall, London)


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/patrick
 
     

András Schiff Almost Won Grammy Without Pedal

The Grammy without pedal that Schiff didn't win

András Schiff is one of the world’s most prominent proponents of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach and has long proclaimed that Bach stands at the core of his music-making. His 2012 recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (for the ECM New Series label) was nominated for the category “Best Classical Instrumental Solo” at the Grammy Awards 2013. He did not win the Grammy this time but had there been a category for “Best Classical Piano Solo Without Pedal”, we are pretty confident that Schiff would have won it.

After fifty years in close relationship with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, András Schiff has developed a kind of personal secret code with these works, like pet names shared between a loving older couple. Bach carefully laid out the preludes and fugues in books 1 & 2 of his WTC: 24 of each, in every possible key, major and minor. Schiff thinks of each piece as having not just a key but a particular character that he sees as color. In his recent Bach project program notes he writes:

The Grammy nominated album

The Grammy nominated album

“To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours. In my imagination, each tonality corresponds to a colour. The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy.
Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence, and therefore C major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B minor, which is the key to death. Compare the fugue of Book 1 to the Kyrie of the B-minor mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles, we have all the other colours: first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between C minor and D minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to E minor), the greens (F major to G minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to A minor), browns (B-flat major), grey (B major) and finally black.”

Schiff’s New Approach to Bach Interpretation

As opposed to before, Schiff now entirely avoids using pedal when he plays Bach. He seeks to emulate the character of the keyboard instruments Bach himself would have known: the clavichord, harpsichord and various hybrids of his day had no means of sustaining the sound and the harpsichord could not make dynamic inflections within a phrase.

“The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice-leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.” – András Schiff, Florence, 2012.

Listen:
Samples at Amazon.com

Read Schiff’s full article on pedalling:
Senza pedale ma con tanti colori
 (Without the pedal but with plenty of colours)

Schiff´s Bach project in New York Times:
Presentation
Review


/patrick
 
     

András Schiff Sharing Perspectives on Bartók

Now in its 14th season, Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series is an artistic initiative in which select musicians are invited to explore their own musical individuality and create their own personal concert series through collaborations with other musicians and ensembles.

When asked to be a 2011–2012 Perspectives artist, pianist András Schiff was adamant about one thing: He wanted to focus on BĂ©la BartĂłk and the vibrant legacy the composer left on their native Hungary. And, as Schiff was quick to point out, BartĂłk was also a New Yorker, moving there in the midst of World War II and living for a time on 57th Street – only a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall.

András Schiff: A Personal Insight Into Bartók

Schiff reveals his longtime friendship with Iván Fischer, and discusses the importance of having Hungarian musicians perform the music of Bartók in this video.

Among the many highlights of Schiff’s series were performances of Bartók’s three piano concertos, a celebration of his musical heritage with Hungarian group Muzsikás, the premiere of a Carnegie Hall commission by Jörg Widmann, and performances with the Salzburg Marionette Theater. In February he also held a Professional Training Workshop, focusing on the music of both Bartók and Bach.


/patrick
 
     

András Schiff Teaches Bach

From the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove, we here present a clip from a Masterclass on targeting characters between movements.
Schiff also works on the disposition of form in order to rightfully serve the rhetoric qualities in Bach playing. In this particular Masterclass, András Schiff works with a student on Bach’s Second Partita for Keyboard, one of a set of six and the last group of keyboard suites Bach composed. As with the earlier French Suites and the English Suites, the Partitas consist of a series of dance movements but Bach’s skill and originality have now elaborated the hitherto straightforward dance forms and given thema richly polyphonic, almost orchestral texture. In 1731 these Partitas were collectively published as Clavier-Ăśbung (“Keyboard Exercise”).

Bach’s Six Partitas – Sheet music to download and print

The masterclass on DVD, available from Amazon.co.uk

András Schiff is one of the great interpreters of Bach and a firm advocate of playing Bach’s keyboard works on the piano. As soloist he has performed and recorded many of Bach’s major keyboard works, and his recitals fill concert halls throughout the world.


/patrick
 
     



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