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
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.
also Chris Howell's review