About this Recording
8.110695 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 7-10 (Schnabel) (1932-1935)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 3

Piano Sonatas Nos. 7-10

In the half century since his death, Artur Schnabel has emerged as something of an icon of modern music. As a composer of atonal music and a performer of classical repertoire, he occupies an unusual place among twentieth-century pianists. He was fond of recounting that his teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) would often remind him ‘You will never be a pianist. You are a musician.’ The remark may have been both a reference to the pupil’s dislike for practice and a comment on his natural talent. He was born in Lipnik, a village on the Austrian-Polish border, and his musical gifts appeared very early. At the age of seven he moved with his family to Vienna to receive his musical training. His serious nature was soon apparent to Leschetizky, who never required Schnabel to learn the popular recital pieces of the era. At sixteen, with his education complete, he left Vienna for Berlin to pursue his career. In the early years he frequently accompanied the soprano Therese Behr, whom he later married. During the first two decades in Berlin, chamber music occupied much of Schnabel’s time. With the violinist Carl Flesch and others, he formed some of the leading ensembles of the era and performed widely. After the First World War he turned increasingly to composition and to Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

In 1798, two years after composing the first two sonatas of Op.10, Beethoven completed the Sonata in D major. It is the grandest of the three and the only one in four movements, all in D (with the second movement in D minor). The first movement opens with a four-measure phrase in unison octaves that outlines the tonality, climbing to a sforzando fermata on A. From the opening motif of this phrase Beethoven draws most of the material for the movement. The opening theme leads to a new melody in B minor before a transition brings us to the second subject in A major. The exposition comes to a remarkably subtle close, with descending motifs in octaves alternating between the hands, recalling — and leading back to — the opening measures. The second movement, the Largo e mesto in D minor, forms the sonata’s tragic core. It is Beethoven’s first slow movement in a minor key and one of only a small number of largo movements among his piano sonatas. The composer deviates slightly from the expected sonata form. He follows the sombre exposition with a new and lighter melody in F major, but the clouds part only briefly before the pathos of the opening return. In this recording from the penultimate session for the 32 sonatas, in November 1935, Schnabel stretches the Largo movement to eleven and a half minutes of remarkable intensity. The gentle (dolce) opening of the Menuetto brings the logical return to the tonic major and a welcome release of tension. The tuneful minuet is followed by a melodically static trio in G major. The Rondo Allegro movement in D major brings the sonata to a curious conclusion. With its contrasting moods and references to preceding movements, it seems to urge us to think again about the meaning of all that we have heard.

As with Op.10, No.3, Beethoven probably completed Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op. 13, in 1798. The 27-year-old composer dedicated the sonata to his friend and patron the Prince Carl von Lichnowsky, and published it in 1799. The subtitle ‘Pathétique’, attached by the publisher Joseph Eder with Beethoven’s approval, has undoubtedly contributed much to the sonata’s popularity. It has been described as a work from Beethoven’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ period but like a great drama it is not easily interpreted. A critic once wrote that Schnabel played the ‘Pathétique’ "with enkindling warmth but it was not permitted to deteriorate into sentimentality." He achieved this balance again in this recording, made in the spring of 1934. For this Romantic work Beethoven selected C minor, a key he had explored in Sonata No.5 and which he would return to in the culmination of his piano sonatas, Op.111. Mozart’s great sonata in the same key (K.457) may have been an inspiration here. Beethoven begins the Allegro opening movement with one of the few introductions among his sonatas. He later uses material from this Grave introduction as a dramatic device, inserting it between the exposition and development and between the recapitulation and coda. The remaining movements are both in rondo form. The middle movement, Adagio cantabile, in A flat major, easily one of the most familiar in all of Beethoven’s piano literature, relies mostly on a nearly steady stream of melody. In a coda that closes in the minor mode, Beethoven’s Rondo finale recaptures some of the drama of the opening movement.

Nearly two years separate Schnabel’s recordings of the two sonatas of Beethoven’s Op.14. In each, the pianist elegantly captures the essence of Beethoven’s eloquent late 1790s style. Neither sonata is remarkable for the virtuosity it demands of the performer. It is music ideally suited to the lighter pianos of 1790s Vienna and yet loses nothing in these performances on Schnabel’s modern Bechstein. Beethoven completed the two sonatas of Op. 14 some time after the ‘Pathétique’ and published them on 21st December 1799, with a dedication to the Baroness Josefine von Braun. He later produced an arrangement for string quartet of Op.14, No.1, the Sonata No.9 in E major, a practice he never repeated, despite the demand for such arrangements. Both sonatas are in three movements and neither contains a true slow movement. The middle movement of the Sonata in E major is in fact a minuet in E minor and trio in C. In the middle movement of the Sonata in G major, a theme and three variations, the musical humour of Haydn is lurking. Beethoven builds on the tension between the simplicity and tenderness of the thematic material and the syncopations and dissonances of its repetitions, carrying this through all the way to the final - ‘surprise’ - forte chord.

Brian C. Thompson

Producer’s Note

Artur Schnabel’s pioneering Beethoven Sonata Society recordings were originally issued on 204 78 rpm sides in fifteen volumes, each containing six or seven discs. The first twelve sets contained the thirty-two sonatas, usually packaged as one early, one middle and one late sonata per album. Variations, bagatelles and sundry short pieces occupied the final three volumes. The sets were released in the UK on His Master’s Voice with some volumes also being issued on French Disque Gramophone, German Electrola and (for the Hammerklavier Sonata only) Victor in the United States. In this eleven-CD reissue series, the first nine discs will be devoted to the sonatas, presented in their order of composition, while the final two volumes will feature the other works.

Because the original discs rarely turn up in any form other than British pressings, the problem of how to deal with the higher-than-average level of surface crackle inherent in HMV shellac has led previous transfer engineers down one of two paths. One way has been to use heavy computerized processing to keep the noise at a minimum. While this made for a relatively quiet result, many critics felt that the piano’s tonal qualities had been sacrificed to an unacceptable degree. Another approach went to the opposite extreme, filtering minimally and even apparently boosting the upper mid-range frequencies in an attempt to add a percussive brilliance to the piano tone. Although this produced a clearer result than the first method, many listeners were put off by the relentless onslaught of surface noise that this approach to filtering and equalization exacerbated.

For the current transfers, I have tried to strike a balance between these two positions. In order to start with the quietest available source material, multiple copies of British, French and American pressings have been assembled, and I have chosen the best sides from each. Computerized declicking (although not denoising) has been employed not only to remove clicks and pops, but also to reduce surface crackle to a minimum without harming the upper frequencies. My approach to filtering has been to stop at the point at which more than just surface hiss was being affected; and my equalization has aimed for a warm, full piano tone which I believe is more representative of the original recordings.

Finally, I have linked the movements of each of the sonatas by retaining the surface noise on the original discs. With recordings of a basically higher noise level such as the present ones, I feel that once the listener has become acclimatized to the surface hiss, much of it can be mentally screened out. It is counterproductive to be reminded of it at the start of each new movement, as happens in those editions in which movements are faded in and faded out.

All of the sonatas in this volume were transferred from British HMV pressings. The first side of the Pathétique Sonata was a remake done six months after the rest of the work had been recorded, and a slight difference in sound (probably due to miking changes) may be noticed. In addition, not a great deal could be done to improve the tinny-sounding original recording of Sonata No. 10.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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