, February 2006
“It is remarkable to hear a great pianist of Schnabel’s ilk in ‘lesser’ works of the composer he is perhaps most associated with.
All of the pieces here were recorded after he had put the sonatas down for posterity, so to go back to a Rondo that Beethoven wrote when he was twelve (WoO49) must have been quite a challenge. Yet Schnabel gives this delightful snippet all the elegant simplicity it requires. Ornaments are lovely; delicacy is all. Most importantly, he gives it his full consideration.
It is this sense of dedication that characterises every performance on this disc — and what a treat to enjoy them in Mark Obert–Thorn’s transfers. He used multiple copies of British, French and American pressings to achieve the quietest surfaces.
If the E flat Minuet inhabits much the same world as the Rondo, the Op. 33 Bagatelles are more ‘Beethoven proper’. Schnabel captures the sweet enigma of the first to perfection — and it is this ‘sweet enigma’ that lies at the heart of these pieces. The very Beethovenian Scherzando of the second, the false simplicity of the third, all seem just right — just as does the elusive final Bagatelle.
Two sets of Variations appear here. The F major, Op. 34 is the most under–rated, and in Schnabel’s hands it makes one ask even more why this is so. The Theme is given out with the utmost concentration, as if seeming to want to hide its potentialities: of which we are only allowed six, of course! Schnabel’s pacing is masterly, so the set as a whole emerges as exploratory yet completely coherent. The fantasy of the final variation is expert — it all sounds so of the moment.
Beethoven’s genius in Variation form is even more obvious in the Eroica Variations. The disc surfaces seem somewhat noisier in this instance, but the actual tonal reproduction of the piano and Schnabel’s nuances are fine. What shines most of all is Schnabel’s complete grasp of Beethoven’s process, culminating in the real expansion of thought of the Fifteenth Variation (Maggiore: Largo). Concentration is at its height here, leading to a ‘Finale alla Fuga’ that rises from hushed beginnings to exude tremendous force.
The G minor/B flat Fantasia, for all its capricious quasi–extempore nature seems, under Schnabel’s fingers, almost to have been conceived for the organ — especially around the four–minute mark. Finally — and how appropriate an encore is this? — the ultra–famous Für Elise Bagatelle, dispatched with the touch of a master.
One more volume to go, it appears, in this excellent series. In the meantime, hunt this one out.