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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Artur Schnabel - Complete Beethoven Society Recordings Vol. 10

Rondo in A major, WoO49, (1782) [3.13]
Minuet in E flat major, WoO82, (1805)
Bagatelles, Op. 33, (1802), [21.22]
Six Variations on an Original Theme in F
Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op. 35
Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77, (1809) [9.37]
Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59 ("Für Elise"), (1810) [21.48]
Artur Schnabel (Piano)
Recorded 1937-1938, Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London. DDD
NAXOS 8.110764 [79.31]

 


After recording all of the Beethoven Sonatas Artur Schnabel went on to make recordings of other selected pieces. The works on this disc, volume 10 in Naxos’s re-issue of the complete Beethoven Society recordings, fall into two categories: those pieces written for amateurs and those in which Beethoven deliberately sought to expand the limits of the classical repertoire.

The earliest piece here is the Rondo in A major, WoO 49 which Beethoven composed at the age of twelve. The similarly modest Minuet in E flat, WoO 82 dates from 1805 when Beethoven was 35. Three years earlier, he had composed a number of works for piano including the Bagatelles, Op. 33. These are his first significant works aimed at amateurs; they are charming, containing much of interest despite Beethoven’s concern to keep the piano part within the limits of amateur ability. Inevitably, these are very much classical works, with no feel of the composer straining at the bounds of what was possible or indeed allowable.

Schnabel gives no feeling of condescension in his playing of these pieces; he takes each seriously on its merits and provides performances of great style and musicality. The music is given space. There is no feeling of the music being dashed off in an impatience to get to something a little more substantial, but neither does he over-weight the music. I can think of no better introduction to these charming pieces.

In the Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major, Op. 34 and the Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op. 35 (‘Eroica’) Beethoven deliberately set out to expand the Classical methods of variation form. These are his first substantial sets of piano variations and were composed in the same year as the Bagatelles. In the Op. 34 variations, Beethoven uses a novel key schema, progressing downward in thirds from the F major of the theme. The Op. 35 variations are something larger and more ambitious; the set served as the model for the finale of the Eroica symphony and so became known as the Eroica Variations. Schnabel is on form in both; always fresh and spontaneous, though I must admit that his technique could be a little wayward. That said, he contributes some brilliantly sparkling virtuosity in the Eroica Variations and you never feel that he is opting for safety over depth of expression. His account of the Eroica Variations is remarkably fleet, with only occasional moments of over-weighty drama.

The disc concludes with two further pieces. The Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77 gives a glimpse of Beethoven the improviser, simply sitting down at the piano and entrancing his audience. It is exactly the sort of piece to bring out the free and spontaneous nature of Schnabel’s art. The final work is another bagatelle, the Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, written in 1810 for his pupil Therese Malfatti (with whom he was in love). Inscribed simply Für Therese, a misunderstanding has lead to it being called Für Elise, one of Beethoven’s best-known and loveliest small pieces.

Mark Obert-Thorn has done a good job in re-mastering these recordings and for much of the time the sound is more than acceptable. You feel Schnabel’s real presence and there are few moments when excuses need to be made for the recording process. There was however something of a slight aura about the recordings. Whether it is in the re-mastering, the original recording or simply problems with the piano(s) that Schnabel uses, I don’t know, but at the upper and lower reaches of the piano the sound hints at a piano not quite as in tune as it should be. There again, that might be me being hyper-sensitive.

Robert Hugill



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