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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2, ‘Tempest’ (1802) [22’52]; No. 18 in E flat, Op. 31 No. 3 (1802) [21’13]; No. 21 in C, Op. 53, ‘Waldstein’ (1804) [24’07].
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Complete Beethoven Sonata Society Recordings Vol. 6
Rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London, on April 27th-28th, 1934 (No. 17); April 25th and May 7th, 1934 (No. 21). ADD
NAXOS GREAT PIANISTS 8.110760 [68’35]


Brian C. Thompson’s notes to this release effectively give a reception history of Schnabel’s Beethoven. As such, they make for absolutely riveting reading, and in offering a survey of critics’ reactions, contextualise how we may hear them today, post the ‘authentic’ brigade. Like Beethoven’s works themselves, there seems little doubt that Schnabel’s recordings will continue to stimulate a multiplicity of reactions and critical interpretations. Certainly, they are of their time (not least in the occasional ‘fistful’ of notes, unthinkable from today’s Conservatory automatons), yet they are simultaneously timeless in the eternal truths they speak of.

Schnabel’s variety of touch is remarkable and it is wonderful to be able to enjoy this aspect of his art thanks to Mark Obert-Thorn’s sensitive restoration (some hiss present, the body of the piano tone nicely retained). And they really are remarkable performances, the sort of thing one dreams about hearing in the concert halls of today, keeps on going and yet … they are rarely, if ever, there. The sheer imagination Schnabel demonstrates in the first movement of the ‘Tempest’ sonata is astonishing. He is unafraid of either stark juxtapositions or of seemingly unfeasible pedal markings. So the opening Largo spreads are magical and contrast superbly to the crisp Allegro that follows. The single-line recitatives are compelling and hypnotic (surely only Pollini live rivals this) – one hangs on every detail with bated breath.

With such a boldly stated first movement, it should come as no surprise that the Adagio is presented in all its bare glory. The sparseness of the writing and the huge registral drops are most disturbing in the bleakness. As if to banish the ‘clouds’, Schnabel takes the finale a true one-in-a-bar (one could argue too fast for the ‘Allegretto’ marking), swinging towards the bar-line. Yet in doing so, the sky remains somewhat overcast - charm is hardly the order of the day here.

Schnabel seems intent on showing the similarities of Op. 31 No. 2 with the next sonata in sequence. The initial Allegro of Op. 31 No. 3 is certainly that, but Schnabel still manages to give the chords of the opening bars remarkable depth (especially as the dynamic rises), to ensure optimum contrast to the staccato lines thereafter (just as contrasts abounded in the D minor). Finger slips (there are some) are largely irrelevant. Similarly, the spirit of the Scherzo is fully conveyed. Utilising pianissimi other players can only fantasise about, the movement bursts with energy. Left-hand definition is well-nigh perfect. Again, the modernism within the score is brought to light. The Menuetto is aural balm before a manic (yet never rushed) Presto con fuoco concludes. It is easy to keep on asking how Schnabel achieves this balance of mania and control, of a pot about to boil over, Much harder, of course, to find an answer …

Finally, the Waldstein, a work that appeared on Schnabel’s very last recital programme, in 1951. Here he is in 1934, though, providing miracles of closely thought-out texture and articulation. Fistfuls appear again, yet the conception seems so incontrovertibly right, the wrong notes so irrelevant. The rapt slow movement (that wonderful pianissimo again!) leads inevitably to a finale that is as thought-provoking as it is exciting. In Schnabel’s hands, trills take on a level of meaning that is very close to Third-Period intensity. Schnabel also introduces a demonic aspect that seems to take it close to the final movement of the Appassionata – and his finger-strength is most certainly up to the level of definition this requires.

One can only extend gratitude to Naxos for this issue. Booklet notes well above the norm and a care of restoration that enables us not only to gasp once more in wonder at these performances, but also to fully appreciate the warmth of Schnabel’s tone and the many felicities of his touch make for a formidable product. And for only a fiver …

Colin Clarke


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