About this Recording
8.110603 - MOZART: Piano Sonatas / BEETHOVEN: Variations (Arrau) (1941)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-179

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791):

Piano Sonata No.5 in G major, K. 283

Piano Sonata No.18 in D major, K. 576


Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827):

Six Variations in F major, Op. 34

15 Variations and a Fugue in E flat major, Op. 35

"Eroica Variations"


Claudio Arrau's position among great pianists of the twentieth century may have been predestined. From the moment of his birth on 6th February 1903 in Chillan, Chile, hardly a day passed when Arrau was not exposed to music. His mother played and taught piano, and by the time he was three, the young prodigy could distinguish one composer from another. Blessed with perfect pitch, Arrau learned to read music before he knew the alphabet. At the age of five, he was ready for his debut recital. The concert held at his home city's municipal theatre, garnered nationwide attention and press, and the little pianist was hailed as "a second Mozart." Arrau's programme contained composers whom he would steadfastly champion during his next 83 years before the public: Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart.


As a result of his youthful success, the Chilean government provided a stipend for the pianist to study in Berlin. Within two years after settling there, Arrau encountered the man whose teaching and overall influence had immeasurable impact on his career and life. Martin Krause was half a century older than Arran when the unsung Chilean pianist Rosita Renard introduced Arrau to his future teacher and mentor. According to Nicholas Slonimsky in Baker's Biographical Dictionary, Krause had played for Franz Liszt in 1883, "and for three years was in constant communication with the master and his pupils." After writing a recommendation to admit Arrau into the Stern Conservatory, Krause devoted much time and energy to his protégés. He supervised Arrau's practice regimen, looked after his general education and even planned his diet.


Krause also encouraged his student to study and absorb as wide a range of repertoire as possible. Arrau disparaged the notion that one must be a specialist in order to make a career. "You must have the capacity to submerge yourself in different worlds," Arrau told Horowitz. "Otherwise you are not a real interpreter, like an actor who plays himself. A real interpreter is somebody who is able to transform himself into something he is not." Conversely, Arrau devoted much of his early career building to single-composer cycles. In Berlin in the 1930s, for instance, he performed all of Bach's solo keyboard works in twelve concerts, and gave complete Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber sonata cycles as well. Arrau had toured the United States during the 1923/4 season, making a triumphant reappearance at Carnegie Hall in 1941. The concert's success played no small part in landing the pianist an American recording contract, and the possibility of bringing large-scale works to the studio (his only pre-war recording as such was a splendid 1939 Schumann Carnaval, together with numerous short pieces by Liszt, Busoni, Stravinsky, Balakirev, and others). By the end of 1941, Arrau recorded Weber's C major Sonata, plus the Mozart and Beethoven works on this disc.


The Eroica Variations was a long-time staple in Arrau's active Beethoven repertoire, The teenage pianist included them in a recital held in the Berlin Beethovensaal on 11th March 1918. Yet the work was still relatively obscure at the time of the present recording, notwithstanding notable versions from Artur Schnabel and Lili Krauss available at that time in Europe. Following a Chicago recital, Rachrnaninov congratulated Arrau backstage, commenting that he had never even heard of the Eroica Variations until Arrau's performance that day. Similarly, a sense of charting new paths dominated Beethoven's thoughts concerning both the Eroica Variations and its shorter companion Variations on an Original Theme Op. 34. In a letter to Breitkopf und Hartel, dated 18th October 1802, the composer wrote that both variation sets "have been worked out in an entirely new manner, each in another, different way. In them, every theme is elaborated in a manner peculiar to itself, different from that of the rest. Usually it is only others who tell me that I have had a new idea, as I never know it myself, but this time I myself must assure you that the manner in these two works is a complete innovation on my pall." Beethoven conceived his Op. 34 variations on a multi-tonal ground plan. The work's designated key signature, F major, applies only to the theme, the final variation, and the work's coda, while the remaining five variations are in D, B-flat, G, E-flat, and C minor. By contrast, the Op. 35 set follows a more traditional key relationship agenda. The work commences with a starkly bold theme that generates fifteen variations, which unfold with brilliant dramatic contrast and elaborate momentum. These culminate in a fugue on the bass of the theme, followed by a coda in the form of two more variations. One might view the composition as a prototype for the finale of Beethoven's Third Symphony, whose variations are based on this very theme. Beethoven, in fact, first used this theme in the seventh of his twelve Country Dances, and also as the finale for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Hence, the present composition's "Eroica" or "Prometheus" subtitles.


While Claudio Arrau arguably achieved his greatest postwar renown for his Beethoven interpretations, the piano music of Mozart proved something of a psychological stumbling block. In 1955 Arrau had scheduled a four-concert cycle encompassing all the sonatas, the four fantasies, two rondos, and various short works. As the performance dates approached, Arrau began experiencing memory lapses during his preparation, and subsequently cancelled the series. Although five Mozart concertos were listed in his orchestral repertoire, he rarely played them, and not at all from 1964 until his death in 1991.


Be that as it may, Arrau eventually committed all the Mozart sonatas to disc in his last years. These weighty, seasoned performances strikingly contrast with the fiery, yet no less probing intensity of his earlier traversals of the G major K. 283 and D major K. 576 sonatas. His fingerwork scintillates, yet each note resonates like distinct pearls on a string. Arrau's former pupil and assistant Philip Lorenz heard his teacher give dry runs of the aborted Town Hall cycle, and gave Joseph Horowitz a revealing, first hand account of Arrau's singular pianistic approach to this composer. "You wouldn't have thought fingers could work so actively. It was a kind of playing I had never seen him do before, with the fingers pulled far back before striking. And he used a kind of flying staccato that was simply dazzling - he would throw his arms and hands at the keys, as if he were shaking water from the fingertips. The ornaments, too, were unbelievable – so fast and at the same time so correct." An organ-like quality seeps through Arrau's full-throated sonority a far cry from the scaled down, "Dresden China Doll" sound world once deemed fashionable for Mozart's keyboard works. Arrau's fastidious attitude, however, was always channeled towards expressive ends. "Only the other day," Arrau wrote in an article for Musical America, "I read somewhere of a pianist being criticized for playing Mozart with, yes, if you please, 'too much feeling.' It takes all the feeling in the world only to begin to comprehend the soul of Mozart." Arrau considered the sonatas to be a mirror of Mozart's life. The gallant style pervades the G major sonata as well as the D major, where, Arrau observes, "Mozart strips his pianistic fabric to almost bare, naked outlines, and with their tone of abstract remoteness and lonely farewell, makes a last plunge into the aching roots of being in this world"


Jed Distler


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