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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Beethoven Sonata Society Recordings Vol.4 – Sonatas 11-13 (1800-01)
Sonata No.11 in B flat major, Op.22 [24:11]
Sonata No.12 in A flat major, Op.26 [22:18]
Sonata No.13 in E flat major, Op.27, No.1 [15:12]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded: Sonata No.11 on 12/13 April, 1933; Sonata No.12 on 25-27 April and 7 May, 1934; Sonata No.13 on 1 November, 1932 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
NAXOS 8.110756 [61:41]


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What do the names Ted Perry, Brian Couzens and Klaus Heymann have in common? Answer: Chief Executives of record companies whose main concern was always the music. In the case of Klaus Heymann the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s loss has been every music-lover’s gain. Had it not been for that orchestra’s short-sighted refusal to record a concerto with his wife, the violinist Takako Nishizaki as soloist, we might never have benefited from the gift that is Naxos. Heymann’s decision to form HNH International that would record his wife has given us records of unrivalled value and a company that challenges the main record companies’ market dominance. Given that the price of a Naxos disc is unaltered from the first records it released 15 years ago, it is all the more remarkable that the company has not simply stuck to the core repertoire or to re-releasing other companies’ back catalogues. Instead it has explored lesser known works, and composers who should be better known. Naxos has also produced spoken word, nostalgia and jazz discs, and has recently added historical performances to its ever-widening range.

There is no doubt that for a rapidly growing segment of its catalogue HNH is beholden to those specialists, collectors and audio engineers, who specialise in preserving our musical inheritance. Several people are doing sterling work in that field. However, different techniques produce different results and there are times when I wonder if the non-specialist music-lover can benefit from owning such discs. A proliferation of clicks and pops, hiss and general surface noise can make the result of dubious value to ears that have experienced so many refinements in recording methods over the years. Some people still hold that CDs are too clinical and I felt the same to start with, but, with the passage of time I have been won over – I just want to hear the music and am only too happy to have any surface noise relegated to recording history. Its not that I’m not interested in artists of yesteryear. I remember with pleasure the old record catalogues my parents had with tiny photos of such greats as Tetrazzini, Kirsten Flagstad, Caruso, Gigli, Toscanini, Backhaus, Gieseking and Schnabel. If such a legacy can be preserved in as clean a sound as possible it is to be welcomed. However, if an artist sounds as if they are singing or playing through a blanket of noise the result may have a value only for another artist.

Naxos’s latest offering in their historical series is of Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven Sonatas 11-13 and does the artist proud. These recordings, made in Abbey Road Studios between 1932-34 are fine examples of the transfer artist/engineer’s proficiency. The sleeve-note informs us that Mark Obert-Thorn, who describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’, has tried to find a "third way" to produce these transfers which has resulted in a remarkably true sound. Even original purchasers of the 78s (via subscription and totalling a staggering 204 sides) cannot have been fortunate enough to have experienced sound as clear as this disc gives us. I have to agree with the sleeve-note which says that. after a while. any remaining surface noise is screened out by your mind leaving you free to concentrate on Schnabel and Beethoven.

Beethoven’s piano sonatas are to me the supreme achievement in writing for the instrument and I never tire of listening to them. Each time I do I discover new things to revel in. This is not surprising since great pianists will say the same about new discoveries they make each time they play them. It is fascinating to note that Schnabel was the very first artist to record all the sonatas and it is from these recordings that this disc was made. The best examples of 78s from all over the world were sought to ensure the best possible result.

What do we look for in a disc such as this? For me it’s as true a rendition of the artists’ interpretation of the music as possible according to my ears. I own two versions of Sonata No. 11 and one of all 32. So I have tried to make a comparison with Bernard Roberts, whose complete set is on Nimbus, and a Soviet vinyl record of Emil Gilels on a transfer from a Polydor recording. These versions of Sonata No. 11 were both recorded in 1985, and both artists had had many opportunities of hearing other pianists’ recordings of this work, and no doubt learned a great deal from them. Schnabel, on the other hand, had an almost pioneering role by comparison, and I tried to bear this in mind while listening.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I started to play the review disc was how fast it sounded and I noted with interest the timings of all three pianists for each movement:

Schnabel Roberts Gilels

1) 6.38 8.00 8.06

2) 9.01 7.36 11.15

3) 3.16 3.17 3.47

4) 5.16 6.34 7.18

In an article written in 1970, pianist and critic Harris Goldsmith expressed reservations concerning Schnabel’s recording of Sonata No.11, describing the opening movement as having a ‘hard-bitten, businesslike aggressiveness’, and I have to agree for although it is marked ‘allegro con brio’ the notes seem to be gone before you can appreciate them, propelled by a speed entirely inappropriate for the music’s delicate feel. Bernard Roberts, by contrast seems to have it just right and, when comparing his version with Gilels, I realised that it was not just the tempo that made it so, critical though it may be. Bernard Roberts has a considerably lighter and more delicate touch, not at all aggressive, whilst Gilels seems to be hammering at the keys of a piano that has an altogether darker, lower tone, not unlike a pub piano. Goldsmith noted that for him Schnabel did have an occasional ‘tendency to maul rhythm and jump beats’ and that’s what I felt he was doing in this first movement. It was almost as if he was rushing to get it over with because he had something better to do afterwards! There are no pauses to allow the mind to anticipate the next phrase – all the notes rush headlong towards the movement’s conclusion. What a contrast then the second movement is and it is clear to see how Goldsmith came to describe Schnabel’s playing in this as ‘sublime’. So it is - the phrasing, tone and tempo quite perfect, the whole movement beautifully constructed. It is hard to believe it’s the same pianist as played the first movement, so sensitive is his handling of it by comparison. Here we have someone who appeared to understand Beethoven’s intentions thoroughly. What surprised me then was that I felt the same about both of my versions – Roberts seemed to have a perfect rapport with the music and the tempo felt just right though it was a different take on it to Schnabel’s. Imagine how amazed I was to find that I felt that Gilels had redeemed himself, despite playing it 34% slower than Bernard Roberts and 2 minutes slower than Schnabel. All three had a love for the music that shined through and that transcended the widely varying speeds at which the movement was taken.

All three seemed to agree that the menuetto should be played at a similar speed and it was only that Roberts’ recording was digital and thus crisper and clearer that made it stand out as the more accessible.

The final movement has Schnabel playing faster than either of the other two but the notes sound more mannered to my ears and don’t flow with the ease the music appears to demand. At other times one is aware of the odd notes being lost in a flurry. Bernard Roberts has a lovely sound and shapes the movement perfectly whilst Gilels sounds slow and heavy. This recording was his last and he was gravely ill at the time so that probably accounts for his overall treatment of this wonderful work.

In Sonata No. 12 Schnabel takes the opening movement terribly slowly and it sounds extremely ponderous with its brightness lost to an approach that is deliberate and which calls to mind a student who seems unsure and has to feel his way through the notes. Bernard Roberts, however, has a touch which is light and confident and with a fluidity that reveals the humour and the humanity in this opening movement.

The two pianists have a similar approach to the scherzo and deliver equally beautifully sounds.

However, they differ widely in the marche funebre despite their tempos being almost exactly the same. In the insert of the Schnabel disc the full title of the movement is given as a funeral march on the death of a hero, but I felt that his playing made his hero seem still alive and strutting around in a most pompous fashion. Bernard Roberts though finds just the right measure of dignified respect.

The final movement sees Roberts delivering a crisp performance whilst Schnabel takes it much faster and the whole thing is over before you know it and I felt it lost definition in the process.

In Schnabel’s hands, however, the opening of Sonata No.13 is taken at a tempo perfectly in keeping with this beautifully written movement and whilst some of the lower notes seem lost in the thickness of sound the whole is a pleasure to listen to. This sonata is the one in which, it seemed to me, both pianists came closest to an almost identical reading.

For the rest of this sonata Bernard Roberts’ performance was eloquent and masterly and I’m very pleased to have had cause to listen to these records in order to compare them in this way. I now feel perfectly happy to remain with them as my main source of these wonderful works.

Artur Schnabel sounded very much at home with this Sonata and there were some really lush moments and all of it absolutely gorgeously played and left me with no reservations about it. This fact made any hiss remaining simply melt away and did not spoil my enjoyment one bit.

All in all this was a fascinating journey to make with a pianist who has been dead for over half a century. Indeed it must be remembered that these recordings were made over 70 years ago and it is quite remarkable that the art of recording has enabled us to hear such a great pianist who was at the very height of his powers when he played these sonatas at the age of 50. In his youth Schnabel was learning these works only 70 years after Beethoven’s death. As I said at the beginning of this review Schnabel was the first to record these sonatas and therefore was not able to ‘benefit’ from listening to a number of other recordings by other pianists of the day as those today can do.

Harris Goldsmith said in 1970 that ‘I like Schnabel’s approach to this music over all the competition’. It would be most interesting to know whether the ensuing 30 years could have changed that opinion. For myself I found Schnabel’s recording enthralling and I must agree with Goldsmith when he said that these recordings of the Beethoven sonatas remain ‘a price-less legacy from a legendary musical thinker and ought to be considered basic to every record library’.

I am still glad that the great strides in recording techniques have enabled our generation to enjoy near concert hall sound in our own living rooms, and, though I am pleased to have historical recordings on my shelves, I am equally pleased that I can enjoy the clarity that digital recordings can give. That said, when one considers that such a disc can be bought for a scant £4.99 (in the U.K.) it only remains for me to reiterate my thanks to Naxos for such an enterprise, and to thoroughly recommend it. I’m sure we will benefit from many more of these invaluable historical recordings. Bravo!

Steve Arloff

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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