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Artur Schnabel
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No.4 Op.58
Piano Concerto No.5 Op. 73 Emperor
Piano Sonata No.30 Op.109
Piano Sonata No.32 Op.111
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Frederick Stock
Recorded in 1942
BMG RCA RED SEAL 74321 987172 [2 CDs: 69.57 + 46.54]


Schnabel’s wartime American Beethoven recordings in this RCA twofer have always been less often reissued than his more famous pre-War sets. That they have generally been less well appreciated is, I think, also true. But they are handily compiled here and make strong claims on the Schnabel admirer, even one who has that earlier complete sonata cycle or the Sargent-led Concerto recordings. In Op.109 we can hear again the remarkable sense of space and span in his playing and, for all that he was chided as professorial, the naturally unforced eloquence of the last movement. As with Op.111 – where the first movement is more measured and the passagework tends to be more considered – these remakes are less volatile and full of momentum than the earlier discs. The Arietta theme of Op.111 is a case in point but throughout both these sonata performances one feels slightly less of a sense of pressing Schnabelian-Beethovenian rhetoric than his earlier self. Though I should add that they still occupy an important place in the discography, still profoundly indicative of Schnabel’s eminence in the repertoire.

The Concertos, in a sense, share the same trajectory as the sonatas. Stock was a fine, much-underrated conductor (as a Biddulph release graphically illustrates) and no time beater, as he was often caricatured. Nevertheless some of the transitional moments in the Fourth sound a mite forced and some of the orchestral sonorities are a bit fatly saturated (in the first movement) or not clearly defined (in the finale). Schnabel sustains musical concentration throughout and is energised and strong boned in the finale (and hear him keep the pedal down at the end). I like the Emperor even more – from the pompous horns, all puffed up and preening, through the rapt direction of the slow movement (even when you feel it could be quicker you realise the rightness of Schnabel’s tempo in absolute terms) and then to the finale – full of caprice and fun.

But I’m afraid I didn’t get on with the transfers. In the concertos surface noise comes and goes – it’s always better to have a uniform level of 78 crackle than to have it intrude and recede – and there are pre-echoes in the sonatas (badly in the opening movement of Op.111) and scrunches on fortes. I could add that the sonatas sound as if they need a treble boost as well. So an important set then – compromised by indifferent transfers.

Jonathan Woolf


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