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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 30 in E, op.109 [20:21], No. 31 in A flat, op. 110 [18:25], No. 32 in C minor, op. 111 [26:00]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded on 22nd March 1932 (op. 109), 21st January 1932 (op. 110), 21st January and 21st-22nd March and 7th May 1932 (op. 111) in EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 3
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110763 [64:66]

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I had some harsh words to say about Schnabel’s “Hammerklavier”, so it is nice to be able to say that the cycle concludes with an absolute peak. Though no one would describe these last three sonatas as technically easy, they are not quite so superhuman in their demands as the “Hammerklavier” and Schnabel can just about manage them. Of course, there are the odd snatched passages if you are on the lookout for them, and he doesn’t make things easy for himself in the first movement of op. 111, Beethoven’s final fling at a “typical” driving allegro (which nevertheless goes off the rails fairly often); Schnabel hurls himself at this recklessly, then plunges into the abyss all the more effective for his courageous tilting at the cliff-edge elsewhere.

What is truly incredible, though, is the impression Schnabel gives of complete freedom, but not his freedom, Beethoven’s. No one else in my experience has been so completely able to give the idea of a man communing with the unknown, with intangible things in the farthest reach of the universe. Witness how the sublime simplicity of the theme with which the second movement of op. 111 opens develops into some sort of existential crisis until gradually the threads are resumed and serenity returns. Nothing is as simple as it seems in this late Beethoven, and nothing is to be taken for granted. The opening of op. 110 has been made, in some hands, to speak of Mendelssohnian comforts, but Schnabel lifts the music from the start into an Elysian plain, in which the music’s far from predictable trajectory seems to be the order of the day.

I realise I am writing in a very fanciful manner, and regular visitors to the site will know that I don’t usually do so. But this is not an occasion when there is any point in going into what he does with beat three of bar fifty-nine of the Adagio non troppo – just be grateful that this has been conserved for posterity in sound which may seem primitive at first (these were some of the first in Schnabel’s Beethoven series) but which you can quickly acclimatize to.

I don’t know what our Editor is going to say about the lack of timings in the headings (Restored by the Editor in the interests of the plodding few who still prize casserole timing. RB), but I just feel they would be meaningless. At the end of it all I could hardly believe I had been listening for little more than an hour – it felt like an immensely long experience, yet also like no time at all. Time seems to move differently when you hear late Beethoven played like this. But if you must have these details you will find them on the Naxos site, together with other mundane information like how much the disc will cost you – it would still be worth it if they asked a hundred times as much. And of course, full track details come with the disc itself, so if you like using late Beethoven to time the casserole you have nothing to worry about.

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Colin Clarke







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