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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No.27 in E minor op.90 [12:24], no.28 in A major op.101 [19:17], no.29 in B flat major op.106 – "Hammerklavier" [40:48]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded in EMI Abbey Road Studio no.3, London, 21st January and 3rd February 1932 (op.90), 24th April 1934 (op.101), 3rd and 4th November 1935 (op.106)
Transfer engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110762 [72:49]

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Op. 90 comes from Schnabel’s first recording sessions in 1932, at the age of fifty – he had for long been reluctant to take the plunge and continued to find the studios an unnerving experience. This sonata was – and on the whole still is – among the less often played ones of the canon. It has a first movement which packs in so much contrasted material in a short space that it is apt to fall apart in the wrong hands and a second movement (there are only two) whose apparent resemblance to a Mendelssohn Song without Words tends to invite sticky sentimental interpretations that make it seem interminable.

Unfortunately, this first movement is not one of those where, by adhering to a strict tempo you can leave the rest to Beethoven; it needs far more to give up its secrets. Schnabel understood this as well as any pianist that came after him and presents the movement as an inspired fantasy, the range of mood from driving energy to withdrawn meditation effortlessly encompassed in a single framework. And, while Schnabel’s technique may have been lacking in the sense of digital dexterity, the speaking quality of his left-hand counter-melodies in the second subject reveals a pianistic command of another kind.

The finale is kept joyfully on the move, anticipating Schubert rather than Mendelssohn. Altogether, a magical performance.

In op. 101, however, technical problems raise their head. Not, certainly, in the hymn-like opening movement (particularly magical in the becalmed opening to the development section) or in the deeply expressed slow introduction to the finale. But the intended Schumannesque swagger of the March-Scherzo is fatally undermined by fistfuls of wrong notes and even the rhythm suffers. Bar 25 seems to represent a particular problem for him since each time it comes round (three times) he panics, hurries and, quite frankly, even with the score in front of me I can’t quite work out what happens. Large parts of the finale are simply too snatched at for the listener to get a clear idea of what the theme actually is, though against all odds (it’s the most difficult section) the fugal development goes rather well. Some may be able to "listen through" all this and discover that the performance’s heart is in the right place but in all truth many subsequent performances have also had their heart in the right place and have been properly played into the bargain.

With regard to op. 106, controversy raged practically from the beginning over Schnabel’s decision to take Beethoven’s metronome marking of half-note = 138 at something like its face value. I should like, however, to start from the Scherzo, where Beethoven’s dotted half-note = 80 is reduced to about 69. The slow movement, too, while continually adjusting the tempo, never approaches Beethoven’s indicated speed and is often very much below it. The finale, while quite fast enough for its own good, is nevertheless some way below 144 to the quarter-note. Now, having in practice admitted that the other markings are wrong – and I can’t for the life of me imagine that anyone ever could play the Scherzo or the Finale at the indicated speeds, or make music of the slow movement at 92 to the eighth-note – does it not follow that that for the first movement must be wrong in about the same proportion?

Maybe some technical wizard could actually bring off the first movement at this speed; Schnabel’s hectic mess does not prove that it is impossible, but he would seem to have proved beyond all reasonable doubt that it was impossible for him. And, as I said, if you’re not going to try to demonstrate the rightness of the metronome markings in all the movements, why be so dogmatic over just one? I must say that, when I read in my colleague Patrick Waller’s review that "I can’t believe that anyone would now listen to his Hammerklavier for pleasure in preference to almost any modern reading" this seemed so sweeping that I started with a predisposition in Schnabel’s favour, but I have to say that Patrick is only too right, at least as regards three movements out of four (in fairness, I should also point out that Colin Clarke took a very different view). However, if you want to get to the heart of Beethoven you’ll have to get this on account of the depth and inwardness of the slow movement.

I must say the recordings sound remarkably well for what they are and at Naxos price the supreme performance of op. 90, together with the insightful slow movements elsewhere, makes purchase infinitely worthwhile.

Christopher Howell

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