> Beethoven Emperor Schnabel 8.110640 [CC]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, ‘Emperor’. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2.

Artur Schnabel (piano); Gregor Piatigorsky (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Recorded on March 24th, 1932 in Abbey Road Studio No. 1 (Emperor) and December 6th and 16th, 1934 in Abbey Road Studio No. 3 (Cello Sonata). [ADD]
NAXOS HISTORICAL mono 8.110640 [60.07]


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Having heard a couple of disappointing ‘Emperors’ live in London recently (Vogt and Pletnev being the musical miscreants: see Seen and Heard), it is a relief to reacquaint oneself with the magnificent insights of Artur Schnabel in this recording made in March 1932. Here is a reminder of the true stature of this piece. Despite its years, the recording comes out remarkably well: more of that anon.

Sir Malcolm Sargent proves himself an excellent Beethoven accompanist. He is attentive to Schnabel’s needs while at the same time giving the orchestra’s role the importance it deserves. Not only does this come across time after time in the first movement (listen to the exposition, or the piano and orchestra’s ‘competition’ over repeated chords at around ten minutes into the first movement, for example), but the opening of the beautifully paced slow movement is rapt and contemplative: the perfect preparation of Schnabel’s magical entry. Schnabel really does have the ability to make a simple descending scale speak volumes. And when he projects the main theme of this slow movement (c4’50) with such wonderful legato, it is truly touching. The mezza voce of the transition to the finale really does make the heart (and time) stop – a trait notably absent, I note, from most modern performances. The pause before the onslaught of the Rondo is perfectly judged.

Of all Schnabel’s attributes, perhaps it is his legato which impresses most, whether in the perfectly-judged scales of the last movement or in the expressive expanse of the Adagio. This is a performance that will yield treasures on each repeated hearing (of which there should be many).

The recording, as presented here in Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers, reveals more details than one might think. Even the second horn solo of the first movement is there, even if one does have to strain a little. A pity that shrillness is part and parcel of the deal here (the first orchestral statement of the Rondo theme is a case in point). It is part of the paradox that is the age of the compact disc that technology has enabled performances of bygone eras to resurrect in new digitally remastered guises. Of course, when originally issued on HMV DB1685/9, the copyright for this recording resided firmly with HMV (now EMI). Now out of copyright, other companies (such as Naxos here) can offer their transfers onto CD and vie for our money.

Two further reissues of this very same performance were considered in the preparation for this review: the Pearl transfer on GEMM CDS9063 (a three-disc set which includes all of the Beethoven concertos, plus the Rondo, Op. 51 No. 1, Für Elise and the Bagatelle in B minor, Op. 126 No. 4 and a previously unpublished account of the Fourth Concerto by Schnabel with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra under Izler Solomon, dating from November 17th, 1947); and the Arkadia transfer on 1CD 78503 (coupled with the Fourth Concerto played by the same forces).

To begin with, let’s jettison the Arkadia. It is unacceptably harsh and brash, transferred at a high level. Textures are significantly more crowded than on Naxos, fortes are regularly marred by distortion and the whole experience is frankly uncomfortable. Detail tends to get hopelessly lost (there is hardly any sound from the timpani at the end, allegedly drumming out the Rondo rhythm beneath the piano’s chords). The overall effect is to demean Schnabel’s genius. Who wants that?. No transfer engineer is credited, only the producer, Nikos Velissiotis.

The Pearl issue is another matter. Here is a company which has a wealth of experience on this area (transfers are by the Seth B. Winner Sound Studios Inc.). True, more surface noise from the originals is apparent, but the piano really does sound like a piano and, whilst there is occasional orchestral ‘crowding’, it is much easier to ignore considerations of recording vintage and concentrate on matters of performance. The Adagio comes across as warmer and even more intimate than in either of the two other transfers under consideration and the last movement seems to be cleaner and have more rhythmic energy. As long as one is prepared to buy the complete set (with the bonuses mentioned above), this is where to go for the most truthful version.

So if the ‘Emperor’ alone is the consideration and you are prepared to buy three discs, go for the Pearl. Naxos’ coupling, however, is fascinating. Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas are marvellous works (shouldn’t they be heard more regularly?) and it is a privilege to hear Piatigorsky and Schnabel in telepathic union, not to mention communion with the Master. That the piece begins with a slow movement (Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, 5’34 long) means that the effect is of the listener eavesdropping on this chamber music event. Piatigorsky is magnificent in his concentration, admirably accompanied by Schnabel. For the rest, for all Piatigorsky’s magnificence (only once is he guilty of suspect intonation, in the second movement at around 5’45), the ear keeps on being beguiled by the subservience of Schnabel’s technique to his monumental musicianship. The ornamentation of the last movement is projected by both parties in the most natural of fashions. Once again, the temptation is to luxuriate in Schnabel’s playing.

If you do not already own the performance of the Cello Sonata, this alone makes the disc essential. It makes the perfect shelf-partner to the Fournier/Gulda account on DG Dokumente 437 352-2 (recorded in June 1959), by the way.


Colin Clarke

See also Chris Howell's review

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