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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Trio in B Op. 8 (1853-54 rev 1889)
Violin Sonata in G Op. 78 (1878-79)
Violin Sonata in A Op. 100 (1886)
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Joseph Szigeti (violin)
Pierre Fournier (cello)
Recorded live in Edinburgh and London, August and September 1947
ARBITER 121 [78.03]

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Schnabel’s period of post-War European music-making was brief. In 1947 he organised a flexible ensemble with which to tour – Joseph Szigeti, Pierre Fournier, William Primrose, the violinist and quartet leader Ernest Element and bassist James Merrett. Fortunately enthusiasts managed to record some of the repertoire and it makes its first appearance here – from the Edinburgh recital of 30th August and the London ones of 22nd and 26th September. The circumstances of the private recordings were such that the sound is frequently poor – there’s no getting around this fact; acetate scuffs, waver, distortion, some constant acetate swishes in the opening movement of the Sonata in G, the fact that inevitably some acetate joins are less than perfect, splashy sound and some fragmentation. Those for whom this sort of thing is anathema should back out now. But for everyone else there are strong reasons for perseverance – and you will be rewarded with frequently magnetic performances and in the case of the trio in particular, a synthesis of musical minds, personalities and aesthetic priorities which produces a reading of astonishing tension.

The Trio in B features Schnabel rather backward in the balance but we can still appreciate his marshalling intelligence and the seemingly infinite layers and shades of colour he can impart. In the Scherzo he is astonishing in his tonal reduction and at pointing the rhythm, which he does with absolute surety. The string players make a fruitful contrast, Szigeti a little wiry by now, Fournier nobility itself – the study and contrasts in bowing is in itself fascinating even though the violinist does come under a little pressure here. The movement ends in a movingly elfin benediction, creating entirely the most apt introduction to the ten and a half minute but perfectly sustained Adagio. All three musicians spin the most moving and expressive line here, long breathed and infallibly textured – passing frailties are of little account as one listens to Schnabel’s weight and seriousness, Szigeti’s plangent portamenti and Fournier’s tonal allure. The finale is fine, dramatic and strongly etched and concludes a performance of all-embracing wisdom.

As I said there is some extensive acetate damage in the opening of the Op 78 Violin Sonata but we can still manage to listen through it – the attempt is worthwhile believe me – to the flexible lyricism imparted by Szigeti and Schnabel. Especially admirable is the way the violinist coils and colours his tone in the Adagio. Both men follow the molto moderato instruction of the Allegro finale to the letter; most instructive to hear the regality and tonal depth of Schnabel’s Brahms playing juxtaposed with Szigeti’s portamento rich, tonally rather shriller aesthetic. Their playing is full of clarity and direction and the occasional split note and coarsening tone from Szigeti one of those heat of the moment things. It’s a pity that the private recordist had to change acetates so late in the movement – at 6.15 to be accurate – but Arbiter have here – and elsewhere – managed these things as well as one could reasonably expect. No one can complain. Op 100 has its fair share of splintery and scuffed sound as well as a bit of waver but is in superior sound to the earlier sonata. This is a splendid performance as well – verdant and fresh, wise and alive, with the beautiful repose of the Andante tranquillo explored with affectionate animation. Occasionally the recording will emphasise a clanging from the piano – especially in the final movement - but this won’t spoil ones pleasure of this generous reading.

Further it should be noted that Szigeti’s commercial recordings of the first two Brahms sonatas are hard to come across – he recorded them with Horszowski; Op 78 in April 1951 for Columbia and Op 100 in March 1959 for Mercury by which time he was well into decline and near the end of his career. Another live performance of Op 100 with Schnabel has circulated - from the Frick Museum in April 1948. But these live recital performances in London in 1947 are must-haves despite the attendant aural distractions. For the nobility and beauty of the Trio one should drop everything.

Jonathan Woolf



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