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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Rondo in A WoO 49 [03:13] (1); Minuet in E flat WoO 82 [03:44] (2); 7 Bagatelles op. 33 [21:22] (3); Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major op. 34 [15:12] (4); Variations and Fugue in E flat – "Eroica" op. 35 [23:35] (5); Fantasia in G minor op. 77 [09:37] (6); Bagatelle in A minor – "Für Elise" WoO 59 [02:48] (7)
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Recorded 14th January 1937 (1, 6), 11th January 1938 (4), 9th November 1938 (5), 10th November 1938 (2, 3, 7) in EMI Abbey Road Studio no. 3
Transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110764 [79:31]

By 1937 Schnabel had completed his cycle of the Beethoven sonatas – the first ever – and set out on a selection of the other works. Since he had begun the sonata cycle with the last sonatas this means that the sublime culmination is in the poorest sound, while most of what we have here, as presented by Mark Obert-Thorn, sounds really very good indeed for its date. It struck me that, a slight surface hiss apart, if one April Fool’s Day you tried kidding your friends that it’s a new recording of a fortepiano, you might almost get away with it.

I can’t imagine that even such a comprehensive Beethovenian played the early Rondo here very often, and Schnabel’s elegance and charm cannot really persuade us that Beethoven was already a great composer at the age of twelve. While in the following Minuet Beethoven seems to want to pretend that he still wasn’t a great composer in 1805 (when he already had the "Eroica" symphony behind him) and Schnabel can’t do very much about that either.

The Bagatelles are another matter and here Schnabel’s calm poise is quite wonderful. He does, however, deliberately keep the range small, whereas the last recording of these pieces that came my way, by the highly talented Zeynep Ucbasaran review, gave the sudden fortes more sting, as though Beethoven were straining at the leash.

In the F major variations I noted how well Schnabel’s technique was behaving in music he can’t have played all that often. Indeed, perhaps for this reason he is playing safe, for I detected an uncharacteristic measure of caution at times, with variation 2, for example, more an Allegretto than an Allegro ma non troppo and variation 6 more an Andante than an Allegretto. Still, he finds by these means a Schubertian lyricism in the work.

Of all the pieces here, I imagine that the "Eroica" variations was the one that he played in recital with a regularity similar to that of the sonatas. This is a true Schnabel performance, heroic, Promethean, his fingers tumbling over right notes and wrong but intrepidly communicative. We get no-holds-barred humour in the zany variation 9 and he penetrates deeply into the mysterious variation 15, where Beethoven seems already to be opening the door on the strange, lonely world of his late works. His noble intoning of the Prometheus theme at the end is more than a match for what most conductors manage in the roughly similar music in the "Eroica" symphony, in spite of the panoply of horns the orchestra can offer.

Schnabel doesn’t really convince me that the op. 77 fantasy is not one of Beethoven’s more oddball misses. As "Für Elise" began it crossed my mind that maybe I had never heard this ubiquitous thing actually played professionally! His gentle lilt at the beginning should be heard by all young pianists who think it has to be played fast and loud, though his typically divine impetuousness in some of the episodes is maybe for adults only.

Highly recommended then, and enthusiastically so in the case of the "Eroica" variations.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Robert Hugill



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