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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Works, Vol. 8

Piano Sonatas: No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90a (1814) [12’24]; No. 28 in A, Op. 101 (1816) [19’17]; No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ (1818) [40’48].
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Rec. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3 on aJanuary 21st and February 3rd, 1932, bApril 24th, 1934, cNovember 3rd-4th, 1935.
From HMV aDB1654-55, bDB2467-69, cDB2955-60. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110762 [72’49]

Here are performances of three elusive masterworks that continue to illuminate, surprise and stimulate on each listening. Schnabel, a master pianist, is never less than gripping, and for once the cliché that wrong notes don’t really matter seems to be true; it’s a much over-used and rarely-true dictum. Schnabel’s grip of Beethoven’s structural and motivic workings seems so complete that one continually feels in the safest of hands.

It is an astonishing fact that Schnabel’s Beethoven Society Recordings took up 204 78 rpm sides in 15 volumes. Naxos have reached the eighth out of eleven volumes. After the sonatas, there will be discs of shorter works - Bagatelles, variations and suchlike.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are very much to my liking. There is some surface noise but this is not intrusive at all for this listener, more reassuring, if anything!. However the actual piano sound is exemplary, retaining a good body of tone, even in the higher registers. Obert-Thorn used British HMV pressings for Opp. 90 and 101, while three U.S. Victor albums provided the source material for the ‘Hammerklavier’.

If there is a caveat on sound terms it is that the E minor, Op. 90 can sound clangy at times, but it is very possible this was deliberate on Schnabel’s part as there is plenty of warm forte around too. The only problem with such a dynamic handling of louder passages is that it emerges as at odds with as opposed to contrastive to the very intimate view Schnabel takes of the more internal passages. The second movement is positively Schubertian, with real pianissimi and a gorgeous sense of calm.

Schnabel eases into the A major almost reluctantly. The opening ‘Allegretto, ma non troppo’ is given a reverential, meditative reading to stand against the explosive ‘Vivace alla marcia’ that follows. The level of right notes to misses is not all that could be desired and some of the really approximate passages will be disconcerting to some, for sure. Yet the deep internal statement that is the ‘Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto’ exudes late-Beethovenian stillness and the finale is viscerally exciting as layer upon layer is dragged into the contrapuntal argument. An oasis of calm at around 2’20 provides balm.

So to the huge Op. 106. Splashes virtually from the beginning here, but what demonic dynamism!. Schnabel projects an explosive, almost primal force, unwilling to stop for anything. Not for him the crystalline detailing of a Pollini.

The fairly heavy tread to the Scherzo may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with this interpretation; Schnabel almost stabs at some accents. All becomes clear with the onset of the left-hand triplets in the Trio, a real bed of sound over which the right-hand octaves can sing. The upwardly-rushing scale at the end of the Trio goes for a burton, though (1’33).

The final two movements enter another world entirely. Schnabel proves that one can commune with the spirits in the Adagio sostenuto without the need for extreme speeds, and Naxos’s transfer ensures that the tonal shading that gives the bass at around 4’20 its burnished darkness comes through realistically. If this movement does not transport you to the Elysian Fields, nothing will.

Despite the splashy nature of parts of the infamous fugue, it must be admitted that this is true technique. Listen to how the running semiquavers are miraculously even, tonally as well as metrically, while it is important to note how Schnabel’s gritty determination rides through some parts that in lesser hands seem to be troughs, or slumps, in the ongoing argument.

A magnificent achievement. Naxos is doing pianophiles the World over a real service.

Colin Clarke

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