About this Recording
8.110760 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 17, 18 and 21 (Schnabel) (1932, 1934)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 6

Piano Sonata No. 17 ‘Tempest’ • Piano Sonata No. 18 • Piano Sonata No. 21 ‘Waldstein’


Artur Schnabel was born in 1882 and in the half century since his death in 1951 he 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 in Vienna Theodore Leschetizky 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. At sixteen, with his education complete, he left Vienna for Berlin to pursue his career. 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.


For many years Schnabel refused to make recordings, believing, among other things, that the technology was simply not up to the task. When he finally relented he did so on his own terms, persuading H.M.V. to record all of Beethoven’s solo piano music, and the present Beethoven Sonata Society discs were initially sold very successfully by subscription. Still, the process of recording was not a happy one for Schnabel. Although the series became a landmark in recording history, a comparison of the reviews of his recitals and recordings leaves one with the impression that the recordings offer only a glimpse of what Schnabel could achieve in the concert hall. In October 1936, the critic Alec Robertson reported in The Gramophone that Schnabel was “very far from being a good recording artist, perhaps because he refuses to take into account the limitations of the apparatus, and because his outlook, as an artist, is not one best suited to the gramophone”. The ‘outlook’ referred to was uncompromising and not well suited to the recording technology of the 1930s. Given his status as the leading Beethoven specialist of his time (or perhaps ever), each disc became the subject of intense scrutiny. The recordings of the sonatas on the present disc received closer attention than most, and the reviews were mixed. In a March 1938 review, The Gramophone reported that among “the most notable performances …[was] a most remarkable reading of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, Op. 53, in Vol. 9”, and that although there were few disappointments, the Sonata in D minor was “the least successful of all”. Another critic, Robert A. Hall, Jr., noted in the August 1937 issue of The Gramophone that “there are, of course, as would be inevitable, a few disappointing records among the long list of Schnabel issues. The Beethoven Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, is decidedly inferior to Gieseking’s recording of the same work; here Schnabel seems, indeed, for once (and only once!) too dry and analytical”.


Schnabel’s reputation as a ‘scholar-performer’ became something that nearly every critic had to address. Following a Carnegie Hall recital in February 1936, Olin Downes reported in the New York Times: “Let no one think that Mr Schnabel, for all his objectivity and analysis, is a purely objective player. Quite the contrary!” He described Schnabel’s interpretation of the D minor Sonata as “drama, almost theatre, of the most impassioned sort”. As the reviews cited above indicate, Schnabel’s recording of the D minor sonata, made nearly two years earlier, was less well received. For Alec Robertson, “Schnabel rises to the full measure of the great Sonata in D minor, the first movement of which is full of superb rhythmic energy. But why on earth does he keep the sustaining pedal down throughout the two lovely recitatives in the middle of the movement? ‘The poet speaks’: but why this jangling utterance? I should be most interested to hear an explanation of this interpretive eccentricity. The adagio, as so often with this player, lacks tenderness and is too heavy: and personally I like the final movement to be less explosive than this. The phrasing and the rhythmic impulse in this wonderful movement are splendid, but I missed the effect of the lovely dissolving harmonies just before the last page.” A quick glance at Schnabel’s edition of the D minor Sonata score, with its copious pedal markings throughout the movement, answers some questions about his interpretation. In a footnote to a passage preceding the one Robertson refers to, Schnabel writes that the pedal must be used “fearlessly; a change of pedal would deprive these measures of their deep background, their innermost spirit”.


With the Waldstein Sonata Beethoven had clearly moved into a new musical language – and one with which Schnabel felt a profound connection. Following a February 1936 performance, Howard Taubman reported in the New York Times that “the Beethoven of the ‘Waldstein’ was communicated with all the gusto and daring of his robust maturity… The opening movement…was taken a shade faster than the tempi of many pianists. The power and exhilaration of the music justify this procedure, provided a headlong pace does not cause the vertiginous passages to be blurred. They were not blurred under Mr Schnabel’s hands. More, the music was set forth with crystalline clarity, with delicate nuance and with no loss of fire of propulsion. The adagio was anguished in its restraint, and the last movement, like the first, was a tour de force of animation and lyricism.” For Abram Chasins, it was especially with the Adagio that Schnabel achieved perfection: “Hearing his profound interpretation of this movement convinces me that such playing is the closest a musician can get to the realisation of infinite repose and insight.”


Schnabel’s recording of the Waldstein faced inevitable comparison with that of Wilhelm Kempff, on Polydor, which had been released to wide acclaim early in 1932. Critical assessment of Schnabel’s efforts were mixed, but generally favourable. “The recording is good on the whole,” wrote Alec Robertson, in The Gramophone, in October 1936, even if “the apparatus cannot be expected to stand up to the player’s sforzandi without protest”. He also felt that a “lack of sensitiveness” damaged an otherwise fine performance. The recording offered a “wonderful clarity of exposition, fine rhythmic energy, and a technique equal to all demands. …The player’s strong rhythmic sense serves him in good stead throughout the two long movements of the ‘Waldstein’.” For Robertson, Schnabel’s playing represented a “purely intellectual approach to the music”. It was this point more than any other that divided critical opinion of the time. Discussing the same recording a year later, Robert A. Hall, Jr. wrote that Schnabel’s “perfection of touch and his absolute control of dynamics are well known; not so often emphasized are the inimitable ‘singing’ quality of his tone, and the almost orchestral richness and variety which he brings forth from the piano. To this technical mastery Schnabel adds and fuses what is all too rare a quality: an intensely intelligent (not merely ‘intellectual’) mind. In his playing we hear not only an exposition but an integration of the spiritual and emotional content of the music, as well as its structure. The result is a perfectly blended interpretation of the music as a spiritual expression and as a musical organism.” This sounds much like what the ailing Schnabel achieved with the Waldstein on 20th January 1951 at the Hunter College Auditorium, in New York, at what was to be his final performance. His biographer, César Saerchinger, writes: “The climax came with the C major Sonata, when all earthly woe seemed to dissolve in the ethereal trills of the finale, evaporate in the luminous veils of iridescent sound. Never had even he, so it seemed, succeeded in conjuring up so magical a vision of the infinite”.


Brian C. Thompson



Mark Obert-Thorn


Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings.


Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.


There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

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