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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 -1827)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 9
Sonata for Piano No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ (1818) [40’21].
Sonata for Piano No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [20:18]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
rec. 21 March (Op.109) 1932; 3-4 November 1935 (op.106), Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London.

CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Piano Sonatas - Volume 10
Sonata for Piano No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821-2) [18:51]
Sonata for Piano No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1822) [26:18]
Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op. 35 ‘Eroica’ (1802) [21:12]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
rec. 21-22 January 1935 (Op.110, 111); 9 November 1938 (Op.36), Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London.
Experience Classicsonline

As a comparative Schnabel virgin, I hesitate to offer many supposed insights regarding his interpretative prowess. Litres of ink have already been spilled by the real devotees to illuminate his genius. Most readers will already have decided whether they want to hear historical recordings or whether they respond to Schnabel’s style. Can you tolerate his slips and “splashiness” in return for the energy and spontaneity of his interpretations? We have perhaps become far too accustomed to technical perfection at the expense of expressive freedom. Now that modern economic conditions having hastened the decline of studio recordings in favour of live issues we should now perhaps be more tolerant of the vicissitudes inherent in live recordings. Schnabel famously disliked the restrictions and inconveniences of the recording studio. Even if modern pianists are technically more adept, if we heard performances such as these live today we would hardly react with anything other than gratitude and astonishment. 

From a practical point of view, the main area of concern will be the sound quality and that is probably of interest to two main groups. The old hands will want to know whether it’s worth the investment replacing their current versions. Pristine offer these latest re-masterings of the late piano sonatas by Andrew Rose. Then there are those aficionados who are curious about the Schnabel legend and might simply want to start with the best available.
There is an alternative from Naxos in Mark Obert-Thorn’s re-engineering of the sonatas for Naxos. They are cheaper than Pristine’s issues, but they cannot compare as a listening experience with Andrew Rose’s superb reincarnation of these classic performances, by far the finest to-date. Regis have issued a super-bargain complete 8 CD set licensed from Nuova Era but don’t touch it with the proverbial barge-pole: there is absolutely no comparison between what Andrew Rose has done here to enhance the original 78s and the sad, distant splatterings you hear on Regis. On Pristine, there is very little hiss or “muddiness” at the bottom and a minimum of “clanginess” at the top. The added depth of sound allows the left hand a greater, welcome prominence. The extra reverberation is perhaps a little wearing on the ear but that’s remedied by turning down the volume a little. The ferocity of Schabel’s attack, the pathos, delicacy and poignancy of his tender touch in the slow movements and the freedom and poetry of his genius emerge more cleanly and clearly than ever before. Despite the aforementioned technical weaknesses in faster passages such as the Allegro opening Op.106, his strengths more than compensate and his dynamism virtually silences criticism. Schnabel’s way with the Scherzo is decidedly aggressive but his interpretation is all of a piece, contrasting wonderfully with the rapt Adagio sostenuto which follows. There is wonderful sonority in the left hand beginning at 2:35 and the new melody anticipating Chopin which sings over that bass ground makes one more grateful than ever for the richness of Pristine’s sound. The odd slip notwithstanding, Schnabel’s technique and fingerwork reveal remarkable virtuosity in the Fugue of the last movement.
The opening to Op.30 reveals Schnabel’s cantabile quality, especially in his lightness of touch when returning to the first subject. His thunderous assurance in the concluding Andante is mightily impressive - but that is the essence of Schnabel’s’ art: he encompasses all the moods required, from the massive profundity of the first movement of Op.110 to the sparkling brilliance of its Allegro molto to the introspective serenity of the final Adagio. Op.111 is just as masterly; one is always completely absorbed by the integrity and aptness of his interpretation whichever sonata one is listening to. Given that the technical challenges stretch him to the limits, one sometimes has the impression that Schnabel is tilting at windmills but it is that dauntless courage which renders these performances so touchingly human. The second movement serves as a paradigm to illustrate this and the human condition in general. A starkly simple statement undergoes variations until it becomes increasingly fragmented and tormented, then order, reason and optimism are restored.
The Op.35 “Eroica” Variations and Fugue is of a somewhat lower order but it was an ambitious and innovatory composition which calls for a huge variety of colour and mood, and the ability to take a long view in order to hold it all together. All of this plays to Schnabel’s strengths. He gives us witty, relaxed accounts but rises to the mysteries unfolding in the last variation. The Fugue has a mercurial, plastic quality in his hands which perfectly underlines the teasing, pleasing irony of Beethoven’s romanticising of that most baroque of forms.
Comparisons with modern recordings are otiose; most serious collectors will want Schnabel’s Beethoven on Pristine in the same way that they want Casals’ Bach cello suites on EMI: they are both artistically deeply satisfying in their own right but also offer a unique and seminal Urtext by which to judge later accounts. I favour Richter, Gilels and early Lupu for more modern sound which clearly illustrates my own taste for the extrovert, demonstrative interpretative school of Schnabel rather than the more cerebral, refined mode of Brendel, Lewis or Pollini.  

Ralph Moore