Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major op. 15 (1800) [36:16]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat op. 19 (1798) [28:06] ¹
Artur Schnabel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent ¹
rec. March 1932, Abbey Road, London (No.1) and April 1935 Abbey Road, London (No.2)

Pristine Audio is engaged with a restoration project in respect of Schnabel’s pre-war Beethoven concerto cycle with Malcolm Sargent. They’ve already issued their transfer of the Emperor (PASC001 - see review) and now here are the earliest two concertos.

The cycle has long since entered the canon of great performances, not least for the rapport between soloist and conductor, for the expressive control evinced by both men and the unexaggerated but eloquent control of the slow movements in particular, which are subject to a sense of Schnabelian Time, something Einstein might usefully have commented upon. EMI has reissued the set but the most price-friendly way to acquire these particular performances has been Naxos Historical 8.110638 with the ‘encore’ of the Bagatelle in A minor, or Für Elise to you and me.

For his Naxos transfer Mark Obert-Thorn used ‘Z’ shellac American Victors and made a fine job of it too. Andrew Rose of Pristine has utilised a different approach altogether, given the ‘XR’ philosophy involved, which is a root and branch reappraisal of the sonic weaknesses and implications inherent in the original artefact and then a wholesale process of remedial work. It’s the audio transfer equivalent, I suppose, of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

Rose’s notes are bullish about EMI’s set up of the day. Was producer Lawrance Collingwood ‘schmoozing’ his stars and not paying attention to what was going on, or did he have a ‘bad cold or blocked ears’ for the sessions that contained the First Concerto and the Emperor, he asks waspishly. I suspect that schmoozing was not a word familiar to LC - I doubt he frequented the Borscht Belt in his spare moments - but it is true that the concertos suffer from uneven recording quality. The Second came in 1935 and is very much superior sonically to the 1932 First; on that there is little disagreement. The Emperor, which Rose has already transferred, was afflicted similarly. So given the inherent modus operandus of this company, a root and branch re-equalisation was to be expected.

The treble-boosted First concerto has been significantly stabilised now - you’ll have noticed that the original recording had a rather torrid astringency on 78, that was very apparent on an EMI LP transfer I sampled - the World Records box set to be accurate. The piano/orchestra balance is now good, and with the tamed treble the warmer contours of the sound can better be appreciated. There seems to have been a graph-induced boost to the LPO basses in the Second Concerto, and that gives solidity and weight to the aural picture.

Whether you prefer the laboratory corrected PA or the more intervention-free Naxos is a matter for the individual listener. I can say however that the work here has been carried out very well.

Jonathan Woolf