Brian C. Thompson’s
notes to this release effectively give
a reception history of Schnabel’s Beethoven.
As such, they make for absolutely riveting
reading, and in offering a survey of
critics’ reactions, contextualise how
we may hear them today, post the ‘authentic’
brigade. Like Beethoven’s works themselves,
there seems little doubt that Schnabel’s
recordings will continue to stimulate
a multiplicity of reactions and critical
interpretations. Certainly, they are
of their time (not least in the occasional
‘fistful’ of notes, unthinkable from
today’s Conservatory automatons), yet
they are simultaneously timeless in
the eternal truths they speak of.
of touch is remarkable and it is wonderful
to be able to enjoy this aspect of his
art thanks to Mark Obert-Thorn’s sensitive
restoration (some hiss present, the
body of the piano tone nicely retained).
And they really are remarkable performances,
the sort of thing one dreams about hearing
in the concert halls of today, keeps
on going and yet … they are rarely,
if ever, there. The sheer imagination
Schnabel demonstrates in the first movement
of the ‘Tempest’ sonata is astonishing.
He is unafraid of either stark juxtapositions
or of seemingly unfeasible pedal markings.
So the opening Largo spreads are magical
and contrast superbly to the crisp Allegro
that follows. The single-line recitatives
are compelling and hypnotic (surely
only Pollini live rivals this) – one
hangs on every detail with bated breath.
With such a boldly
stated first movement, it should come
as no surprise that the Adagio is presented
in all its bare glory. The sparseness
of the writing and the huge registral
drops are most disturbing in the bleakness.
As if to banish the ‘clouds’, Schnabel
takes the finale a true one-in-a-bar
(one could argue too fast for the ‘Allegretto’
marking), swinging towards the bar-line.
Yet in doing so, the sky remains somewhat
overcast - charm is hardly the order
of the day here.
Schnabel seems intent
on showing the similarities of Op. 31
No. 2 with the next sonata in sequence.
The initial Allegro of Op. 31 No. 3
is certainly that, but Schnabel still
manages to give the chords of the opening
bars remarkable depth (especially as
the dynamic rises), to ensure optimum
contrast to the staccato lines thereafter
(just as contrasts abounded in the D
minor). Finger slips (there are some)
are largely irrelevant. Similarly, the
spirit of the Scherzo is fully conveyed.
Utilising pianissimi other players
can only fantasise about, the movement
bursts with energy. Left-hand definition
is well-nigh perfect. Again, the modernism
within the score is brought to light.
The Menuetto is aural balm before a
manic (yet never rushed) Presto con
fuoco concludes. It is easy to keep
on asking how Schnabel achieves this
balance of mania and control, of a pot
about to boil over, Much harder, of
course, to find an answer …
Finally, the Waldstein,
a work that appeared on Schnabel’s very
last recital programme, in 1951. Here
he is in 1934, though, providing miracles
of closely thought-out texture and articulation.
Fistfuls appear again, yet the conception
seems so incontrovertibly right,
the wrong notes so irrelevant. The rapt
slow movement (that wonderful pianissimo
again!) leads inevitably to a finale
that is as thought-provoking as it is
exciting. In Schnabel’s hands, trills
take on a level of meaning that is very
close to Third-Period intensity. Schnabel
also introduces a demonic aspect that
seems to take it close to the final
movement of the Appassionata
– and his finger-strength is most certainly
up to the level of definition this requires.
One can only extend
gratitude to Naxos for this issue. Booklet
notes well above the norm and a care
of restoration that enables us not only
to gasp once more in wonder at these
performances, but also to fully appreciate
the warmth of Schnabel’s tone and the
many felicities of his touch make for
a formidable product. And for only a