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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Sonata for Piano No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 Waldstein (1803-1804) [24:15]
Sonata for Piano No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [10:26]
Sonata for Piano No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 Appassionata (1804-1805) [22:14]
Sonata for Piano No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 (1809) [9:41]
Sonata for Piano No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 (1809) [8:33]
CD 2
Sonata for Piano No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) [12:31]
Sonata for Piano No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [20:36]
Sonata for Piano No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821-2) [18:35]
Sonata for Piano No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1822) [26:02]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
rec. 1932 (Op. 78, 90, 109, 110, 111); 1933 (Op. 54, 57); 1934 (Op. 53); 1935 (Op. 79), Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London.


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EMI Classics have been reissuing recordings in tranches via their flagship series, ‘Great Recordings of the Century’.

EMI has introduced music-lovers to many recording premieres over the years. Especially significant was Artur Schnabel making the first ever recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Schnabel’s recordings, made 1932-35 in Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London, remain classics of the gramophone era. This double set is a compilation that EMI judge to be the finest of them. The label asserts that Schnabel’s recording of the 'Waldstein' is one of the greatest Beethoven recordings of all time and that his performances of the last three piano sonatas are “visionary readings”. I am certainly no expert on the history of these Schnabel Beethoven piano sonata recordings but I guess that these recordings are from the same two-hundred or so original twelve inch 78 rpm records that are now out of copyright under the fifty year rule. Now remastered and reissued as part of the Naxos Historical Collection and maybe even available elsewhere on other labels.

Artur Schnabel was born in 1882, in Lipnik, Moravia, a village on the Austrian-Polish border, then part of Austria. The family moved to Vienna when he was seven and as a child prodigy on the piano he studied privately with Hans Schmitt (1888-91) and with the renowned Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky (1891-97). Schnabel is reputed to have known Brahms and had even studied with him. Although I am unsure just how accurate this information is, it is a pleasant thought. In 1900 he settled in Berlin, then a growing centre for music, making the city his home for thirty-three years. Between 1925 and 1933 he joined the faculty of the Berlin State Academy. Owing to the dangerous situation for European Jews with the advance of National Socialism in Germany, he left Berlin in 1933 and lived for a time in England and Italy. In 1938 he settled in the United States of America where he became a citizen in 1944. Schnabel died in 1951 at Axenstein, Switzerland.

In addition to his talents as a virtuoso pianist Schnabel was a renowned teacher, author and also a composer. He wrote in many genres, including three symphonies and a body of chamber and instrumental music. Biographer Mark Satola writes that between the years 1919 and 1924, when he withdrew from the concert hall, his composing activities were the happiest days of his life. Schnabel’s reputation principally rests on his dynamic and legendary interpretations and editions of the piano works of Beethoven. In January and February 1927, to mark the centenary of Beethoven’s death, he performed all of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas at the Berlin Volksbühne; a feat that had not previously been undertaken. Between January and April 1933 he again performed the piano sonatas at the Berlin Philharmonie.

On the present issue the nine chosen piano sonatas are presented in chronological order. On the first disc Schnabel commences the programme with the Waldstein’ from Beethoven’s middle period. One immediately feels the ‘electric’ atmosphere right from the opening bars. Tempestuousness is combined with serenity across the grandeur of the music. In the two movement Sonata No. 22 I was impressed with the machine gun-like staccato notes in the unusual opening menuetto. Schnabel leaves one feeling drained from the breathless nature of his playing in the allegretto. In the challenging Appassionata Schnabel plays with imagination and high drama. In the final allegro ma non troppo - presto one can imagine being in the midst of a chilling and ferocious storm. The two movement Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major was evidently a favourite of Beethoven, and Schnabel is stunning, providing a reading of rapt intimacy in this concise score. Sometimes referred to as a ‘Sonatina’ the Sonata No. 25 is given an interpretation of fluidity and vivacity in the outer movements with a deep sadness in the central andante espressivo.

The second disc opens with the two movement Sonata No. 27 in E minor. Schnabel is dramatic and extrovert in the opening movement and the Mendelssohn-like allegretto is evocative of lullabies in a children’s nursery. In the Sonata No. 30 light work is made of the difficulties with the alternating quick and slow passages. The lengthy closing movement theme and variations is given a sublime and masterly interpretation. Schnabel is impressively calming in the opening movement of the Sonata No. 31 and sparkling and capricious in the short Schumannesque central movement. He admirably catches the deeply introspective character of the final movement. The release concludes with the two movement Sonata No. 32 which was Beethoven’s last work in the genre. Here Schnabel imperiously interprets both the vigorous and meditative moods of the score.

There are a whole host of commended recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas available many of which would grace any serious classical music collection. Although not an exact match to this EMI-Schnabel set, for those wanting an alternative might wish to investigate the recently reissued nine disc budget set played by the distinguished pianist Emil Gilels on Deutsche Grammophon 477 636-0. This DG item comprises the Piano Sonatas: Op. 2 Nos. 2, 3; Op. 7; Op. 10; Op. 13; Op. 14 No. 2; Op. 22; Op. 26; Op. 27; Op. 28; Op. 31; Op. 49; Op. 53; Op. 57; Op. 79; Op. 81a; Op. 90; Op. 101; Op. 106; Op. 109; Op. 110; WoO 47 Nos. 1, 2; 15 Piano Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 ‘Eroica Variations’.

Notwithstanding the age of some of the original recordings I have not been unanimously impressed with the effectiveness of the remastering undertaken across some of the releases in the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. The present recordings have been cleaned up extremely successfully and they sound remarkable for their seventy years. The interesting and informative notes from Bryce Morrison are of the highest quality and the booklet contains several marvellous photographs of Schnabel.

These interpretations are imperious and this is certainly one of the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’. Beethoven lovers and those who are fascinated by historical recordings from the greatest performers will be in their element with this issue. 

Michael Cookson 


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