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Great Pianists: Artur SCHNABEL
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) - Piano Sonatas: Volume 4

Sonata in B flat Op.22, in A flat, Op 26, in E flat Op 27 no.1
Recorded between 1932-34 at Abbey Road Studios London ADD
NAXOS 8.110756 [61.41]


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There is no doubt that Schnabel was a truly great pianist on a par with Horowitz but with a different style and repertoire and vastly better, for example, than Richter who could be very wayward and self indulgent. Schnabel could hit wrong notes, and sometimes in the most unfortunate places, but his musicianship was staggering

The Sonata in B flat opus 22 is the first of the great Beethoven piano sonatas. I have never understood why it has not achieved the same status as the Pathétique, the Moonlight and the Waldstein. Perhaps if it had been given a name it would have fared better but what's in a name?

Schnabel's opening allegro is very fast and breathtaking in places. I adore this movement. It is very difficult to play and at Schnabel's speed I doubt whether many pianists could manage it like this. It is too fast. To bring up an old chestnut when some composers mark movements allegro and they are not merry, quick and lively, I become very cross. But this is a real allegro, or is it? It is more like a presto to me. I think it is too fast. On the other hand the Teutonic style of playing music slower than intended which makes the music stodgy is to be condemned. While I admire Klemperer in many respects his slow speeds did disservice to many great works.

His control in the second movement is admirable. The lines are clear, the culmination of ideas is beautifully judged, he avoids wallowing and is faithful to the score. In fact, at times like this, he always gives me the impression that he is Beethoven reincarnated. I imagine Beethoven would have played some movements of these works just like Schnabel. The movement is nine minutes long and yet Schnabel's control and ability in keeping the music going makes it sound all too brief. His playing of the main theme is sublime.

The minuet follows in which Schnabel provides such exquisite contrasts and he does not play minuets as a dance form with strong, weak, weak beats. He plays it as music. His fingerwork here is stunning and his speed is quick which may trouble some purists who want a minuet to be slower.

The finale is another whirlwind. The speed is exhausting at times but the control is faultless. The clarity of the texture is unsurpassed and for seventy years of age the recordings are generally acceptable. There is one nasty glitch in the finale.

Beethoven thought highly of this sonata and rightly so.

Much as I believe Beethoven may be the first really great composer his A flat sonata is not a favourite of mine. In fact I find much of it to be boring. The opening movement is an andante with variations. The word andante is a problem. That means at walking pace but some people walk faster than others. Schnabel is too slow and the music drags. He does not observes some rests, bars 42, 47, 48 etc and the sound is a little tinny at times. The sound affects variation two. The next variation is in the remote key of A flat minor with seven flats! Grammatically this is correct but would it be easier to read in G sharp minor. The pianissimo in the next variation is faithfully observed and the final variation, variation five, ends with an unauthorized rallentando. There is nothing memorable in Beethoven's material in this movement and Schnabel's slow speeds do not help it.

The scherzo is marked allegro molto with a trio. It is well played but the music is inconsequential. Schnabel's is good in the trio where the simplicity of the material is played with compelling effect. The sound here is a bit tinny and in the reprise of the scherzo Schnabel speeds up as if to get it over and done with.

The third movement is the big Funeral March sulla morte d'un Eroe. Do we know who the hero is? There is no doubt that this movement influenced Chopin for the funeral march in his Piano Sonata no. 2 and, I have to say, that Chopin's march, is better and more coherent.

Beethoven starts in A flat minor. Why? He introduces sharps as accidentals in bar 8 and following. It would be a lot easier to comprehend in G sharp minor. The movement is marked Andante maestoso but, like the first movement, it is another dragging adagio. The passage from bar 31 prefigures the Waldstein and then we return to the irritation of A flat minor which introduces sharps eight bars in and the music drags painfully.

The brief allegro finale is also inconsequential and ends quietly.

A Beethovenian I am, but this is an awful piece. If we had time we could discuss and compare it with the other A flat sonata Op 110. And to think that Tovey referred to opus 26 as a divertimento with a preponderance of light sectional forms! I was not diverted. I was bored! A divertimento conjures up the idea of something light and attractive. This is not.

The two sonatas of opus 27 are known mainly for the second in the group, the so-called Moonlight but the first in E flat is, in my view, the better work, and in welcome contrast to the suicidal gloom of Opus 26. Opus 27 number 1 is, like its successor, called a Sonata quasi una fantasia. It is a lovely sunny work. I must confess to having have a few doubts about the second movement with its rather daft off beat sections (bar 89 onwards) and the feeble material. If you play it as written it sounds wrong as if the right hand is a quaver beat behind, which it is. The slow movement, like that of the Waldstein is a brief and a very profound introduction to the vigorous finale, a tremendous allegro vivace.

There is quite some hiss on this recording. The opening movement is in ABA form. The A sections are marked Andante and are far too slow here and need to be more robust. The central section, the B section marked allegro is too fast and so we come to the conclusion that Schnabel was extreme in his tempi. The second movement has a slight swimming pool sound which I did not like. It is a movement that shows something of Beethoven's mood swings. The third movement, Adagio con espressione finds the background hiss to be a minor deterrent. I would prefer a more subtle beauty in this little gem. The finale starts lugubriously but this is another minor transfer glitch. The music sparkles but a clearer more modern sound would do the gorgeous piece more justice. Just before the end Beethoven reintroduces some of the slower material from the opening movement and so the piece loses its momentum. Pity, but he did that in the finale of the Fourth Symphony, another pity!

There is a wonderful story about Schnabel. George Szell once handed me a manuscript of a symphony, the composer's name not being on the score. He later asked me what I thought of it:-

I replied "It is the work of a first year student."

Szell answered, " I don't like it either. It's by Artur Schnabel, you know."

I have a recording of that symphony. It isn't bad!

David Wright



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