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8.110761 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 22-26 (Schnabel) (1932-1935)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 7

Sonata Nos. 22-26

In 1932, at the age of fifty, Artur Schnabel began to make records. He had long disapproved of recording and the process itself was not a happy one for him. Only when His Master’s Voice agreed to release by subscription nearly all of Beethoven’s music for solo piano, did he agree to take part. The actual recording of these many sides coincided with the rise of Adolf Hitler and some major changes in Schnabel’s life. He had made Berlin his home since completing his studies with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, at the age of sixteen. The vast apartment he shared with his wife, the soprano Therese Behr, and their two sons, on the Wielandstrasse was not only a home, but also a teaching venue and a meeting place for many of the era’s greatest musicians. Schnabel himself had over the years become a precious cultural icon to many Germans. In 1927, the Beethoven centenary year, he performed the entire cycle of 32 sonatas in seven concerts, given on consecutive Sundays in January and February at the Volksbühne. Returning to Berlin from London late in 1932, he prepared to give another cycle of seven concerts. The performances took place between January and April 1933 at the large hall of the old Philharmonie. All seven concerts were to be broadcast, but after the first four concerts a new government policy came into force prohibiting non-Aryans from the airwaves. Schnabel was also soon dropped from plans for the Brahms centenary events. Opportunities for the era’s greatest interpreter of Beethoven began to vanish almost over night. Believing that the Nazi regime would be short-lived, London provided a temporary refuge and Schnabel settled reluctantly into his new rôle as a recording artist.

The five works on this disc date from two distinct periods in Beethoven’s output. He completed Sonata No.22, in F major, Op. 54, in 1804, while at work on the opera Fidelio. Being wedged chronologically between the Waldstein and the Appassionata sonatas, Op. 54 has been overlooked. As Tovey has written, it may be just ‘ten minutes of [Beethoven’s] most Socratic humour, but that is too important to deserve neglect’. Beethoven completed the Sonata No.23, in F minor, Op. 57, in 1805, and his publisher attached the title Appassionata. The choice still seems appropriate for this tragic work. After completing it, Beethoven composed no more piano sonatas for four years. Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78, was the first of three works composed in 1809, the year in which Haydn died and Napoleon’s troops once again invaded Vienna. It was among Beethoven’s favourites. In the concentration of its thematic material and blending of melody and accompaniment, it signals ideas that Beethoven would explore more fully from Op. 90 onward. The Sonata No. 25, in G major, Op. 79, is sometimes referred to as a sonatina. It is compact in form and highly polished. Beethoven dedicated the quasi-programmatic Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’, to his friend and pupil the Archduke Rudolph. Like many aristocrats, the Archduke had fled besieged Vienna in the early months of 1809. He returned in January 1810, and soon after Beethoven offered all three sonatas (Nos. 24-26) to his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel.

Schnabel recorded both the Sonata No. 22 and No. 23 on 11th April 1933, during his second group of sessions at Abbey Road Studio No. 3, in London. The Sonata in F major, Op. 54, was not issued until 1936, when it appeared in Volume 8, along with Op. 2, No. 3, and Op. 31, No. 2. As with each volume of the series, it was eagerly awaited by subscribers and critics. In his April 1936 review in The Gramophone, Alec Robertson described it as being ‘played the best’ of the three works, ‘perhaps because it is purely intellectual and not in the least emotional music. Schnabel’s great gift - one that Tovey also has - of letting us perceive the growth and design of the music stands him in good stead here’. Robertson noted that in the passagework in particular Schnabel was able to succeed where many other pianists fell flat, showing ‘us what, and with what economy, Beethoven does with unpromising material. In this connection note the use to which he puts the two-note figure at the end of the phrase that opens the second (and last) movement. The recording of all the sonatas is good if a little coarse, and, as I have intimated, there is plenty of matter for discussion in Schnabel’ s interpretations, besides lots for any pianist to learn and profit from.’

More anxiously awaited was Schnabel’s recording of Sonata No. 23, the ‘Appassionata’. The New York Times called his playing of the Appassionata at his Carnegie Hall matinee recital of 16th March 1935 ‘the most stirring of the afternoon' with the first movement ‘powerfully accentuated and boldly contrasted’. He also succeeded in reproducing the tragic nature of the work on record, despite the technical limitations of 1930s recording equipment and his discomfort with the process. It was issued in Volume 5 of the Beethoven Sonata Society recordings, along with Op. 22 and Op. 49, No.2. In his August 1934 review of this volume in The Gramophone, Alec Robertson called the ‘great F minor Sonata...the real treasure of this album. It is played magnificently. Schnabel gives a most dramatic reading of the work, leaving us in no doubt as to its essential bigness’. He left one caveat: ‘On one point only do I feel inclined to disagree with him, and that is over the accelerando he makes at each (immediate and higher) repetition of the second subject of the first movement. An increase in tone is certainly called for, but not, I feel, in speed. This, however, is merely a personal matter.’  In his survey of Beethoven sonata recordings for High Fidelity, Harris Goldsmith noted how many remarkable recordings there were of the Appassionata by 1970. Schnabel’s, he wrote, ‘is swift and classical - again, just this side of Gulda’s haste, and considerably more flexible and nuanced’.

Sonata No. 24, in F sharp major, Op. 78, was not widely performed in the 1930s, and Schnabel played an important rôle in revealing its charm, and the relationship between its two movements. Noel Straus, writing in the New York Times after Schnabel’s Carnegie Hall performance of 26th February 1936, claimed that the ‘most startling and significant playing’ of the evening ‘was heard in his superb unfolding of the rather neglected sonata in F sharp major.’ He continued: ‘Few who heard the interpretation of the F sharp sonata are likely to forget it, either in respect to its effect as a whole, or in regard to its salient details...Mr. Schnabel’s insight and his understanding of its real possibilities, resulted in a reading which must have re-created the work for every musician in the house.’  Schnabel’s Beethoven Sonata Society recordings were initially available only to subscribers in the British Commonwealth, but had begun to reach many Americans by 1936. His recording of the Sonata in F sharp major dates from his first group of sessions at Abbey Road, in the Spring of 1932, and was issued in the first volume. Goldsmith described it simply as filled with joie de vivre.

Schnabel’s recording of Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79, was issued in the last of the twelve volumes of Beethoven Sonata Society recordings. The release was an occasion that The Gramophone remarked ‘cannot pass without a word of praise for the perseverance of His Master’s Voice and the wonderful playing that Artur Schnabel has given us.... In the course of one hundred and sixty-two sides, Schnabel has never forgotten that he was doing pioneer works. ‘This March 1938 review noted the nearly miniature form of its movements, and that it was ‘in every way interesting as it was written at a time when Beethoven’s last sonatas, though as yet unwritten, were clearly being anticipated by the composer. Throughout the work we are given veiled hints that something great is to follow, and occasionally we are given a sample of the material. The recording is faultless.’

Given the events of the 1930s, Schnabel may have connected personally with the programme of Sonata No. 26 in E flat Op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’. It was with this sonata that he closed his 5th February 1936 Carnegie Hall recital, after which Olin Downes wrote that ‘Mr Schnabel went far to reveal the completeness of Beethoven’s meaning, in measures where divination as well as profound knowledge on the part of the performer is required.’ His recording of this sonata, made on 13th April 1933, Goldsmith described as ‘one of his very greatest performances - full of flexibility, energy and personality.’

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.

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 equalisation 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. Computerised 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 equalisation 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 acclimatised 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.

The sources for the current volume’s transfers were laminated French ‘Disque Gramophone’ pressings for the Appassionata and Les Adieux Sonatas, and British HMV shellacs for the remaining sides. Some blasting is inherent in the master of the Les Adieux Sonata during the third movement’s louder passages.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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