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April 04, 2005

Artur Schnabel's recordings of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas - Re-released by Naxos Historical

Posted by David Conway

Artur Schnabel's recordings of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas
9 CDs, re-released by Naxos Historical
£4.99 each

Beethoven's sequence of 32 piano sonatas, taken as a whole, is one of the greatest achievements of Western culture; so we must recognise the supreme importance of Artur Schnabel's recordings of the cycle as forming their first, and in many ways definitive, presentation to the world as an artistic unity.

A defence of these assertions would probably take at least one substantial volume. Here however are some of the arguments I would offer. Beethoven's stature as an artistic genius is that he is one of the select few who seem to display a consummate mastery of all that has preceded them, whilst revealing completely new directions which their successors have not yet been able to exhaust. These new directions derive from Beethoven's insights into, and transformations of, the techniques he inherited from former masters. It is the excitement generated by these transformations – of harmony, texture, structure – which imbue his works with the indubitable aura of genius. (I have always felt a parallel – which I admit is purely subjective – with Rembrandt, with whom Beethoven seems to share powers of representing energy, humour, passion, nobility and transience).

The piano sonatas, the earliest of which were written around 1793 (when the composer was 23), and the last of which dates from 1822, five years before he died, offer a complete map of the evolution of this genius. They also clearly demonstrate how Beethoven transformed the music of his era (and of future eras) from the youthful fusion of intellect and eccentricity (Haydn and C. P. E. Bach) of op. 2 no. 1 to the profundity and transcendence offered by the two movements of op. 111.

Although lip-service was consistently paid to these monuments of the piano repertoire in the century following Beethoven's death, very few of them were actually played, either in concerts or in the home. Those that achieved popularity were those with descriptive titles, sometimes given by the composer ('Les Adieux', 'Pathιtique'), or, sometimes with little justification, by publishers ('Moonlight', 'The Tempest', 'Pastoral'). Most of the rest – with no apparent 'storyline' and often of substantial technical difficulty, even of apparent incoherence to amateurs – languished.

In 1927, to celebrate the centenary of Beethoven's death, the entire set of piano sonatas was played in a series of concerts in Berlin by the Austrian pianist, Artur Schnabel (1882-1951). Schnabel had studied with Brahms and with the great piano teacher Leschetizky, who also taught Paderewski and Moseivich. He was thus part of the great generation of pianists who made the first recordings of the keyboard classics.

Yet Schnabel himself was not keen on recording. In the twenties, although he was a consistent advocate of the music of Beethoven and Schubert, his main interests seemed to be in the new music of Hindemith, Kreňek and Schoenberg, and in his own (highly complex and intricate) compositions. He also became a leading teacher in his own right (Clifford Curzon being amongst his pupils) and produced his own, scholarly and sensible, edition of Beethoven's sonatas. But his centenary performance of the cycle was recognised at the time as a landmark. He repeated it in Berlin in 1933 – but between the initial concert in January and the final concert in April, Hitler came to power. After this last concert, Schnabel left Germany, never to return.

However he repeated the cycle in London in 1933-34, and this gave rise to the project of the Beethoven Sonata Society and HMV to commit the performances for posterity, initially on some 200 sides of 12" 78 rpm records. These recordings are now out of copyright, and Naxos has now issued them, re-engineered to diminish crackle and surface noise, on a series of CDs.

The recordings are as sensational now as they were seventy years ago. Each of these wonderful pieces is approached by Schnabel as a dialogue with the composer, conveying an absolute certainty that through him, we are engaging as directly with Beethoven as an audience can. In his time some criticised Schnabel for attaching as much importance to link passages and configurations as to the 'big tunes', but this is simply to miss Beethoven's intentions: everything that he wrote had a purpose, to shape the piece as a whole, to point its climaxes, to crystallize its architecture in time. As Schnabel himself is reported to have said:

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – that is where the art resides.
The timing and placement is everything.

My first acquaintance with Beethoven sonatas came though some of the Schnabel 78s which I used to crank up on an old gramophone in my childhood. When the time came for me to attempt playing some of these works myself these examples were inevitably present – not only for their insight but for their humanity, and their occasional human failings. Although I never reached any great level of competence, it was gratifying, for example, to realise that Schnabel also tended on occasion to speed up as excitement mounted and smudge notes, or even miss our complete beats, as he does notably in his performance of the op. 57 'Appassionata' sonata (totally exhilarating, of course, despite these faults).

Schnabel's renditions of the three great last sonatas remain truly sublime, an acknowledged peak of recorded performance. But as a convincing demonstration of his magic I would choose the disc containing three lesser-known works, the op. 22 sonata in B flat, the op. 26 sonata in A flat, and op. 27 no. 1, the sonata 'quasi una fantasia' in E flat which is a companion piece to the so-called 'Moonlight', all written around 1799-1801. Through these performances we are given a perfect and entrancing view of a key moment in music, as Beethoven indisputably (in retrospect) declares the eighteenth century over and the nineteenth begun.

The materials with which the first movement of op. 22 is constructed could scarcely be less promising, and would have put even Haydn to test – a terse drum roll, an arpeggio, a scale; nothing you could go away humming. Schnabel however is witty, forceful, elegant and surprising by turns, an interpretation which more than matches the teasing of Beethoven's conceits and leaves us wanting to hear it all over again to catch the twists we missed.

If in op. 22 Beethoven demonstrated that he could match Haydn, in op. 26 we are already in a new, romantic (indeed, Romantic) universe in which the composer extends the world of Mozart. The first movement is a set of variations (not the traditional 'sonata form') on a warm melody which is subsequently stretched through jazz-like syncopations and dark chromatic manipulations; the third movement is a military funeral march, eventually dying away with discords throbbing against its pulse; the last movement an anticipation of Schubert's evocations of flowing water. The E flat sonata is no less original. Throughout, Schnabel is an immaculate guide, presenting, to be sure, both the composer and himself, but never obscuring the primacy of the former, in performances which are both confident and joyful.

By being first, and by being of such quality, Schnabel's recordings set a permanent standard. Other pianists offer interpretations which may illuminate different aspects of these masterpieces, nearly all will offer (despite Naxos's re-mastering) better sound-quality; but Schnabel's performances are amongst the exalted few on that plane where some may compare with him, but none can excel. The more I experience them, the more I am enthralled and delighted. There can be no higher praise for art.


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Hi, can any one provide some information in regards to some recordings of Beethoven i have. I have a 5 record 78rpm box set, from 1938, by the Gramophone Company in Hayes Middlesex England. Played by Artur Schnabel, conducted by Dr Malcolm Sargent, and the London Symphony Orchestra. His Masters Voice Recordings, album number 146. Does any body how many were made,is this rare, leather cover and records are in very good condition, or any other information would be great, thank you

Posted by: Peter Mellors at November 3, 2009 06:13 AM
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