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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Works - Volume 8

Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor Op.90 (1814) [12:24]
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Op.101 (1816) [19:17]
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Op.106 Hammerklavier (1818) [40:48]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Rec. EMI Abbey Road Studio No 3, London, Jan-Feb 1932 (op.90), April 1934 (Op.101), Nov 1935 (Op.106) ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110762 [72:49]

Confessions of a reviewer: until this disc arrived for review I was a ĎSchnabelís Beethovení virgin. So bear in mind this is a first-time reaction and donít expect any comparisons of sound quality against previous incarnations of these recordings. Of course, I am familiar with his reputation and aware of the Penguin Guide rosette for the complete EMI set. This should not be taken as a revisionist view of the complete genre but I was disappointed with these offerings. My concerns have nothing to do with sound quality - which is more than acceptable for the three score years and ten - but relate to Schnabelís playing.

Listening to the Hammerklavier whilst looking at the music on the page, I could scarcely believe my eyes and ears in the first movement. Schnabel dashed this off in under nine minutes (with the exposition repeat) but with innumerable inaccuracies and smudges. He may have been taking Beethovenís metronome marking seriously but whatís the point of that if he doesnít hack the notes? The scherzo and adagio were much more accurate but in the slow movement Beethovenís long lines were not always realized and I felt that there could have been a greater sense of repose. The finale fared only marginally better than the opening Allegro. By comparison, Schnabelís readings of the E minor and A major sonatas have only a few glitches. I found them impressive in parts (for example the opening Allegretto in the A major) but wasnít bowled over by them.

I feel that a distinction should be made between historical recordings which have interest value (in practice, most of them) and those which survive the passage of time because of outstanding merit. Schnabelís readings of these sonatas were presumably once the only versions; now there is a plethora of choice. I canít believe that anyone would now listen to his Hammerklavier for pleasure in preference to almost any modern reading. The greatest rendition I have yet heard is historical Ė Solomonís 1952 recording. Hearing that again after Schnabel was comparable to experiencing light again when emerging from a cave.

Naxos has now issued almost all Schnabelís Beethoven sonatas as individual discs (and the last three are on their way). This has the merit of enabling one to pick and choose and, of course, the price is low. I seem to have chosen the wrong place to start.

Patrick C Waller

see also review by Colin Clarke

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