About this Recording
8.110762 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 27-29 (Schnabel) (1932-1935)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 8
Sonata Nos. 27-29

Artur Schnabel was fifty years old when he finally agreed to make recordings. After more than thirty years as a recitalist, he had gained a reputation as a scholarpianist and the leading interpreter of Beethoven’s piano music, but steadfastly refused to submit to the alleged tortures of the studio and its inadequate technology. It was the producer Fred Gaisberg who, in 1932, persuaded Schnabel to record, but only on the pianist’s condition that he record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (and other pieces as well). Many of the works were then little known, making it a risky venture financially. HMV realised the project through the creation of the Beethoven Sonata Society, which initially sold the discs by subscription. Pianists and Beethoven aficionados were drawn to the recordings the way they were to Schnabel’s concert performances. Like the live performances, the discs had flaws. Schnabel was difficult and demanding in the studio. The perfect take was rare and there were no opportunities for splicing in correct notes. They were in a sense live performances, made without the presence of an audience, and one can understand how a musician like Schnabel would find such conditions disagreeable.

Beethoven’s Sonata in E minor, Op. 90, dates from 1814. It was published by Steiner in 1815 with a dedication to the Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, brother of Beethoven’s patron and friend Prince Karl. Beethoven’s use of German tempo markings for each movement, directions which translate as ‘with liveliness and throughout with feeling and expression’, and ‘not too fast and play in a very singing manner’ respectively, reflected his belief that the standard tempo indications lacked precision. He had also assigned German titles to the movements of the previous sonata, Op. 81a, but in other ways the Sonata in E minor stands closer to the final works (Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111). It resembles Op. 111 in the minor-major key contrast of its two movements, the first in sonata-form and the second a rondo.

Schnabel’s recording of the Sonata in E minor dates from his earliest sessions with Gaisberg at Abbey Road Studio Number 3, and was released in the first volume of Beethoven Sonata Society recordings. In his review of Volume 1 the critic of The Musical Times noted that the Sonata in E minor was one that ‘somehow seems not to have had its due. It is one of the most poetic of all the Sonatas; perhaps its lack of virtuoso opportunities has kept it out of recitals, and the domestic pianist is held off by that ungrateful snag, the difficult left-hand accompaniment of the second subject in the first movement’. Regrettably, he did not comment specifically on Schnabel’s interpretation. Harris Goldsmith, in his 1970 survey of Beethoven on record in High Fidelity magazine, described Schnabel’s first movement as being ‘surprisingly muted but full of driving, passionate energy nonetheless. I also like the way he keeps the second moving along’.

Beethoven completed his Sonata in A major, Op. 101, in 1816. When published by Steiner, in 1817, it appeared with a dedication to the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, whom some believe to have been Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved. Whether or not she was the subject of the composer’s deepest affections, she had been his student since 1803, and was well regarded as an interpreter of his music. The Sonata in A major is a highly romantic work, and among the most challenging of Beethoven’s sonatas in its complex contrapuntal passages and tonal relationships. Here the traditional weight of the movements has been reversed. The brief Allegretto, the March, and the Adagio all prepare the way for the finale, the sonata’s most substantial movement.

Schnabel’s recital performances of Op. 101 are legendary. Writing in the New York Times, in January 1936, Howard Taubman claimed that ‘for a full comprehension of the profundity of Mr. Schnabel’s imagination, one must speak of the grandeur and nobility of his playing of Op. 101’. Schnabel’s recording of the same work, initially issued in Volume 7 of the Beethoven Sonata Society discs, was less successful. ‘On the whole, his account of this sonata is scandalously messy and chaotic’, wrote Goldsmith, while conceding that ‘Schnabel’s sublime treatment of the adagio transcends everyone else’s save Arrau’s’ – the latter recorded in 1965.

Beethoven’s Sonata in B flat major dates from 1818 and was published by Artaria the following year. It is one of several works dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. Although all of Beethoven’s sonatas from Op. 101 onward bear the inscription ‘für das Hammerklavier’, rather than for the Italian pianoforte, only Op. 106, his longest and most demanding piano sonata, is known by the German term. The ‘Hammerklavier’ was the first of several works of enormous scale and grandeur, among them the Diabelli Variations, the Missa solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony. In concert performance the ‘Hammerklavier’ will muscle other sonatas aside. After Schabel’s 1926 performance at Grotrian Hall, on Wigmore Street, The Times critic wrote: ‘It is true that to some minds, there may be a touch of the ‘virtuosic’ style in the strength of accentuation, the sudden force, almost violence of the attack or the tremendous pace adopted for the first movement of the great B flat sonata. In fact, it was really too fast for clear articulation, especially in a small hall, but taking a movement as a whole…the impression of Mr. Schnabel’s performance was at bottom one of absolute unity in conception’. A decade later Howard Taubman called the ‘Hammerklavier’ ‘the pinnacle’ of Schnabel’s Carnegie Hall recital of 12th February 1936. The performance, he wrote, ‘was an eloquent recreation of an immense work. The sonatas that had gone before – the E flat major, Op. 7; the C sharp minor, Op. 27, No.2, and the G major, Op. 14, No.2 – seemed pale by comparison’. To listeners of the 1930s, as now, the ‘Hammerklavier’ ‘sounded audacious in design and brilliantly imaginative in execution; more than a century of currency has not dimmed its prophetic originality’. Few pianists were up to the demands of this sonata. ‘It requires a pianist who commands a superb fusion of head, heart and hand to bring this sonata to life, and Mr. Schnabel was such an artist last night’, wrote Taubman. There was, he continued, ‘passion, power and a broad line in the first two movements of the sonata, and the endlessly difficult final section was wrought with consummate resource. But it was the tremendous slow movement – seraphic in its exaltation and poignant in its searching compassion – that Mr. Schnabel did the most profoundly moving playing of the evening. There are not many pianists abroad who can do justice to this movement.’

Schnabel’s recording of the ‘Hammerklavier’ appeared at about the same time as that of Wilhelm Kempff on Decca, providing listeners of the 1930s an extraordinary example of how two of the leading pianists of the era could have very different perspectives on a work. The critic Alex Robertson contrasted the two interpretations in a review in the November 1936 issue of The Gramophone. Kempff’s recording, he noted, had superior sound, giving it ‘the advantage whenever there is question of big chords and sonorous bass’. Kempff’s interpretation, however, was off the mark: ‘Schnabel stabs at the opening theme, (which Beethoven hints at in both the Scherzo and the Adagio) in such a way as not to give it time to articulate itself’, following ‘the tradition of restrained violence’. Kempff, on the other hand, ‘gives it more weight…dignity and amiability. The latter quality, however can have no proper place in a work of this calibre…There must be no slackening of the vital impulse implied by those first massive chords and so I find Kempff’s touches of rubato (between bars 50-100) out of place, but Schnabel’s slight element of fantasy exactly right.’ In the Adagio, ‘Schnabel excels. He gives one a feeling, and never more so than at the wonderful modulations that are part of the glory of the movement, of one showing forth a high mystery, and he concedes nothing to mere sensuousness of sound’. Writing 35 years later, Harris Goldsmith reiterated many of these sentiments: ‘The problem in playing the adagio…is more than just a question of slow, fast, or moderate tempo: here an entire aesthetic response comes into play, and the upshot is whether a given performer feels – or wants to feel – intense suffering in his music-making. Schnabel lunges into the opening allegro and the fugue with a tremendous, febrile impact. Even if you accept (as I do) the premise that his thinking is on the right track you will have to admit that the fingers keep jumping the rail. One critic has said that Schnabel’s performance gives you more of the music and less of the notes than anyone else’s – and I’ll quote that opinion as a fair one. In the adagio, on the other hand, Schnabel has no executional problems. He begins with an indescribable veiled quality and lets the music progress with ineffable sadness and worldweariness. At times the phrases falter, almost as if choked with tears. It is an unforgettable performance.’ Goldsmith noted that the perfect recording of Op. 106 ‘has not, and probably never will be, made’. Many would still agree. Schnabel’s recording – with its failings – remains a remarkable testament to the emotional depth of both composer and pianist.

Brian C. Thompson

Close the window