About this Recording
8.110763 - BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32 (Schnabel) (1932)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 9
Sonata Nos. 30-32

In the half century that has passed since his death, Artur Schnabel’s reputation as the great scholar-pianist of the early twentieth century has changed remarkably little. He was born in 1882 and as a child prodigy became a student of the renowned Viennese piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky. At sixteen, with his education complete, he left Vienna for Berlin to pursue his career. During his first two decades as a professional musician, chamber music occupied much of Schnabel’s time. He formed some of the leading ensembles of the day, performing with musicians such as the violinist Carl Flesch, and the contralto Therese Behr, whom he married in 1905. After the First World War he turned increasingly to composition and to solo piano repertoire. He favoured a Modernist compositional style and a Classical piano repertoire, revolving around the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. He produced perhaps the most idiosyncratic edition of the scores of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas and played the sonatas several times in complete cycles, first in 1927, the Beethoven centenary year. In the early 1930s, he finally agreed to make recordings. He had, for many years, refused to record, believing, among other things, that the technology was simply inadequate, but at the age of fifty he began the task of committing to disc for HMV all of Beethoven’s solo piano music, under the Beethoven Sonata Society (BSS) banner.

In the seventy years since their initial release, Schnabel’s recordings have remained an essential part of the Beethoven discography. They are far from perfect. The recording process did not allow Schnabel to hear back what he had recorded, much less splice in corrections, and yet any discussion of the interpretation of Beethoven’s sonatas will inevitably turn to Schnabel and his place in a performing tradition stretching back to the composer himself. He played the cycle of 32 sonatas in London in the fall of 1932, soon after embarking upon the recording project, and gave other performances of the sonatas in the British capital in early 1933. At a performance at the Queen’s Hall on 22nd April 1933 he performed sonatas from different periods with what the critic of The Musical Times called ‘the same loving care bestowed on the lesser as on the greater works; here, too, were the same regal splendour and impregnable completeness… He gave the full measure from the outset. He is right in Beethoven’s music all the time, has “ensphered himself” in it’. Schnabel was in fact spending much of the month working with HMV at Abbey Road Studios.

All three sonatas on the current disc were recorded in the early months of 1932, placing them among the first works Schnabel recorded. Beethoven had conceived the final three sonatas as a set, promising them to publisher Adolf Martin Schlesinger in April 1820. Ill health and hard work on the Missa Solemnis prevented completion of the sonatas for two years. Schlesinger published Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op.109, in 1821, followed by Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110, in 1822, and Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, in 1823. They date from Beethoven’s late period and reflect the introspection that came with his later years. In them, he continued to explore new ways of integrating sonata form and unify movements. In Op. 110, for example, he closes the middle movement not in the home key but on an F major chord, which then resolves into the B flat minor chord that opens the third movement. In the final movement he pairs the operatic Arioso dolente, in A flat minor, with a fugue in A flat major. It is a combination not found elsewhere in his works, and was quite possibly inspired by the Missa Solemnis. As in many of his late works variation forms are prominent. Both Op. 109 and Op. 111 close with expansive movements in theme and variation form. The final movement of Op. 109, comprising a theme with six variations and coda, is more than double the length of the first and second movements combined. In the closing movement of Op. 111, each variation brings further subdivisions of the rhythm, in the same slow tempo, thus progressing from the hymn-like theme to sustained trills in the final moments.

Judging from reviews, Schnabel was at his most profound in his performances of these late works. Following a series of recitals at the Albert Hall, in London, in May 1946, the critic of The Musical Times remarked ‘No one else in the world could play those trills in the second movement of Op. 111 as he does; nor those three pages of heavenly pianissimo. It is the same with the return of the fugue, una corda, in Op. 110’. Following his performance of Op. 109, near the end of his 1936 cycle in New York, Howard Taubman of the New York Times wrote that it was in his interpretations of the ‘Waldstein,’ Op. 53, and in Op. 109, the greatest works on the programme, that Schnabel had achieved the ‘incandescence and penetrations that were worthy of the composer’. With Op. 109, it was ‘an interpretation of glowing comprehension, with the noble Andante movingly communicated. As Mr. Schnabel concluded the final apocalyptic pages with their intermingling of serenity and sorrow, the audience remained hushed. It was several moments before the spell was broken [and] Mr. Schnabel was thunderously applauded’. His recording of Op. 109 had been released three years earlier, in Volume 2 of the BSS discs. In his review of it in the March 1933 issue of The Gramophone, W.R. Anderson focused first on the sound quality, finding Schnabel’s tone at times ‘a little dry’ – ‘the inevitable fading of the piano-string comes too quickly’ – while being grateful for ‘some of the truest pp tone yet recorded’. On the interpretation he praised Schnabel’s pacing (‘We are given time to admire, not dragged round the gallery and nudged into admiration’) and his playing in the contrapuntal passages: ‘I can never understand why composers have not dug deeper in the mines that Beethoven, in his last works, was opening for them – and why so few have dug at all’. Harris Goldsmith, in his 1970 survey of Beethoven on record, in High Fidelity magazine, wrote: ‘Schnabel’s ascetic reading [of Op. 109], instead of concealing the many difficult musical problems lets the listener in on the mental processes, and in the end, solves them to everyone’s perfect understanding: this sublimely affecting performance is one of his best’.

Schnabel’s recording of the Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110, was issued in volume 3 of the BSS. In his review of the volume in the August 1933 issue of The Gramophone, W.R. Anderson thought some passages were rushed, but found that Schnabel’s ‘fine mind shows best in the last half of 110. He beautifies the sometimes rather awkward piano writing,’ produces a fugue that is ‘deeply serene,’ and brings out the movement’s ‘inward grandeur’. For Goldsmith the impression was much the same: ‘Schnabel snatches at the double thirds in the Scherzo and distorts one or two other details as well, yet delivers an impassioned, deeply felt interpretation’.

Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, was among the closest to Schnabel. The critic Noel Straus found Schnabel’s February 1936 performance ‘emphatically dramatic in the first movement and strikingly original in certain phases of the last. In the Arietta, the theme was stated with the singing tone, the tenderness and simplicity it demands and seldom receives. But especially admirable were the mysterious atmosphere created in the fourth variation and the ineffable delicacy of the purling figures of the fifth variant. By art of this superlative nature the pianist completed his splendid tribute to Beethoven’s genius’. After another New York performance of Op. 111, eight years later, Virgil Thomson acknowledged Schnabel’s place as a Beethoven interpreter: ‘Any issue taken with him on details of tempo, of phraseology, of accent is risky and, at best, of minor import’. Of the reading of Op. 111, Thomson wrote: ‘Mr. Schnabel achieved in the first movement a more convincing relation than one currently hears between the declamatory and the lyrical subjects. And in the finale he produced for us that beatific tranquillity that was a characteristic part of Beethoven’s mature expression’. In his review of the first volume of BSS recordings, the critic of The Musical Times noted that the ‘stormy grandeur of the first movement of the C minor is achieved without noise’, referring to the interpretation rather than the sound quality. ‘Indeed,’ he continued, ‘throughout the three sonatas [on Vol. 1] there is an entire absence of the exaggerated methods which some well-known pianists employ… Schnabel shows that music so full of life needs no point-making, still less the fantastic bad time-keeping that calls itself rubato’. For Goldsmith, Schnabel’s 1932 recording remained ‘unequalled’ in 1970, as Schnabel had ‘found the elusive balance between classicism and Romanticism, between ripe tonal expansiveness and ascetic economy. The music plunges ahead with hurling impetus and yet has all the time in the world to dwell on beauties of the moment’, achieving a ‘vaporous haze and breathtaking remoteness in the second-movement trills’.

Brian C. Thompson

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