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