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
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.