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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli op.120 [53:39], 6 Bagatelles op. 126 [19:56], Rondo a capriccio in G op.129 – "Rage over a lost penny" [04:54]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded 30th October and 2nd November 1937 (op.120), 13th January 1937 (opp.126 &129) in EMI Abbey Road Studio no.3
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110765

Schnabel’s Beethoven cycle began gloriously in 1932 with his sublime – if sonically challenged – interpretations of the last three sonatas. Having completed the sonatas in the meantime, the final volume closed equally gloriously with the first ever recording of Beethoven’s last large-scale masterpiece for piano, the Diabelli variations. Meanwhile the recording industry had been making strides and the sound here, if without the bloom and range of the best modern recordings, is revealed in Mark Obert-Thorn’s careful restorations to be more than acceptable – after a while one becomes so absorbed in the performance that the sound scarcely matters.

As for the performance, it should be emphasized that this is not one of those occasions where Schnabel’s studio nerves failed him and left him flailing and fumbling. His fingers are on their best behaviour and allow us to appreciate an interpretation which finds a just and convincing solution to every myriad change of mood along the way. It would be reductive towards the many great pianists who have given their all to this elusive masterpiece to suggest that it remains the only version that counts, but it certainly set interpretative and intellectual standards which are a daunting challenge to all that followed.

Schnabel is equally responsive to Beethoven’s cryptic op.126 Bagatelles, aptly described by Alec Robertson (quoted in the booklet) as "a sort of sound-sketch book" of Beethoven in his daily life. Schnabel is as truthful towards the moments of drollery or ugliness as to those of beauty and contemplation. Finally, the so-called "Rage over a Lost Penny" whose digital demands might seem risk territory for Schnabel, but which actually comes off splendidly, with furious aplomb.

Naxos continues to provide its historical releases with exemplary presentation, in this case by Brian C. Thompson with a technical note from Obert-Thorn. If you don’t have Schnabel’s "Diabelli" then snatch this modestly priced issue up before the threatened extension of copyright laws kills it off.

Christopher Howell



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