As nearly as some cursory Web sleuthing could determine, the Austrian pianist Markus Schirmer has concertized little in the U.S., and his recordings (e.g., Schubert sonatas, Lotus 9414; Haydn sonatas, Lotus 9517; Beethoven sonatas, Tacet 128) have not been widely distributed here. He has, nevertheless, appeared with a number of important European orchestras and conductors. He also composes, devotes considerable energies to both chamber music and interdisciplinary performances, and is professor of piano at the conservatory in his native Graz. None of this prepared me for what I was to hear on his latest disc of the first and third sonatas from Beethoven’s op. 31, along with the “Waldstein,” played on an exquisite sounding Fazioli.

Schirmer strikes me as an artist of discriminating taste, intelligence, and tremendous imagination. As a pianist he is fearlessly audacious. His technique is flawless and perfectly attuned to his probative musicality. Listening to Schirmer play, awareness of physical concerns evaporates; one only hears an unimpeded flow of music. The quieter end of his dynamic range on the instrument seems to have dozens of degrees. In fact, it is almost entirely within a normal conversational “tone of voice” that Schirmer enunciates Beethoven’s discourse. This is not to suggest that his playing is in any way understated or introverted, but that the gradations of Schirmer’s dynamic palette from pianissimo to mezzo forte are so numerous and varied that when a sforzato or full fortissimo crops up, the instrument fairly roars. Nothing is ever over-played and even some of the most danger-fraught passages in the “Waldstein” sound effortless. Schirmer also commands a huge arsenal of attack and release strategies—the bustling Allegretto vivace of the famous Scherzo of No. 18 is a veritable tour de force of varieties of staccato and detaché playing. He has what might be described as a finely honed narrative gift, which allows him to move logically and inevitably through Beethoven’s musical arguments, elucidating their thornier syntactical idiosyncrasies. These are well known pieces, yet they seem brim full of surprises, and Schirmer’s architectural grasp is such that each movement seems to speed by. The complete opposite of the dour, scowling Beethoven-specialist type, Schirmer is always ready to give the master’s humorous vein its full due. Don’t be surprised if, listening to the opening Allegro vivace of No. 16, you find yourself laughing out loud. My favorite moments of the entire disc occur in the Adagio grazioso of this sonata, with its long trills and elaborate fiorature floating above a staccato accompaniment, perfectly secco as Beethoven indicates, and here played virtually without pedal.

Over the past year, the two Beethoven sonata recordings that have afforded me greatest pleasure are those of Andreas Haefliger in opp. 28 and 57 (Avie 2143) and Ronald Brautigam in opp. 53, 54, 57, 78, 79 (BIS 1573). Schirmer is as unlike either of these as they are unlike one another; yet all three produce strikingly original performances. Schirmer’s Beethoven—played on a fine instrument and beautifully recorded in a flattering space—is clean, vivid, stylish, and never less than thoroughly enjoyable. You may find yourself as eager as I to hear him live stateside, and soon.
Patrick Rucker

<< back