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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonatas: op.54 in F; op. 57 in f – "Appassionata"; op.78 in F sharp; op.79 in G; op.81a in E flat – "Les Adieux".
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded 11th April 1933 (opp. 54, 57), 21st March 1932 (op.78), 15th November 1935 (op.79), 13th April 1933 (op.81a) in EMI Abbey Road Studio no.3, London UK.
Transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn.
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110761 [66:04]

 

I found that Pollini’s recent version of op.54 was unable to convince me that the nickname "La Dispassionata" which is sometimes rudely attached to this sonata is unjustified. Schnabel makes the opening minuet sound absolutely lovely, with a gentle lilt and a touch of gentle humour too. Even the octave passages sound melodious, not mere exercises. A movement which had always seemed to me one of Beethoven’s rare failures is revealed as a thing of beauty. For this revelation, much thanks. The finale sometimes sounds confused, but since this seems to stem, not from technical shortcomings but from a desire to show that there is much more inside it than the perpetuum mobile most performers find, I feel Schnabel is to be forgiven.

Likewise, you might find tidier accounts of the "Appassionata", but will you find one with more sense of mystery and latent power in the soft passages, more surging passion in the more fiery moments, more profundity in the slow movement (though the tempo is actually not so slow)? Schnabel doesn’t make life easier for his fingers in the tumultuous finale, with the final pages awesome indeed. Sometimes I might prefer to hear this sonata unfolded more patiently, but for sheer molten inspiration this version is unsurpassed.

Probably I would usually wish to hear op.78 unfolded more patiently, but Schnabel’s impetuousness is enthralling in its way, while op.79 is quite extraordinary. This is often looked down on as one of the "easier" sonatas, but not if you play the outer movements at Schnabel’s tempi. I found this a salutary shock, only just the right side of a gabble but with tremendous verve and quirky humour. In between the Andante is taken very slowly with beautiful tonal shading and spontaneous-sounding rubato; it is elevated to much more than the prototype for Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words that it usually seems to be. As for "Les Adieux", there are performers who aim to find continuity in the stop-starting of its first movement, and beauty in the apparent clumsiness of some of the counterpoint. Schnabel is truthful about all this, revealing a sonata which already anticipates the uncompromising world of the late sonatas.

The recordings are, of course, old, but quite frankly I soon forgot that as I was caught up in some of the most enthralling Beethoven playing I have ever heard. And I must say that Mark Obert-Thorn has succeeded in making them sound less clangy than they often do; to such a degree, indeed, as to call into question one often-accepted "truism". Schnabel, we are told, was noted for his intellectual control, his profundity, his truthfulness, with the implication that lesser matters like actually making a beautiful sound rather passed him by. This is how the recordings sound in most transfers but, not for the first time, Obert-Thorn has me wondering if we have accepted this idea a bit too glibly. Certainly, the artist who gives us the Andante of op.79 could have played a Chopin Nocturne as beautifully as anyone, had he wished to do so.

Recommended with all possible enthusiasm to those who are prepared to forgo modern sound in the pursuit of musical truth.

Christopher Howell

 



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