About this Recording
8.110764 - BEETHOVEN: Eroica Variations / Bagatelles, Op. 33 / Variations, Op. 34 (Schnabel) (1937-1938)

Great Pianists: Artur Schnabel: BEETHOVEN: Piano Works Vol. 10
Eroica Variations • Six Variations on an Original Theme • Bagatelles, Op. 33 • Für Elise

Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was born into a bourgeois family at Lipnik, a village on the present Czech-Polish border, but then a part of the Austria. At the age of seven he moved with his family to Vienna to receive his musical training from the renowned piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915). Unlike his classmates, during his studies Schnabel was not required to learn the popular recital pieces of the time. Leschetizky quickly understood the serious temperament that would become Schnabel’s trademark. In his recitals he would eschew encores and lighter works, championing the sonatas of Schubert that were then rarely heard, and playing a limited repertoire with which he was fully engaged.

Schnabel’s career began in Berlin. He arrived there in 1898, at the age of sixteen, fresh from his studies with Leschetizky. Initially he devoted much of his time to accompanying the soprano Therese Behr, whom he married in 1905, and to performing chamber music. The violinist Carl Flesch was his main performing partner through the early years in Berlin and described their partnership at that time as ‘simple and unspoilt, and easily satisfied with modest financial results, but demanding in all artistic questions. The gramophone was canned music for [Schnabel] then, and he refused to play chamber music in large halls.’ After the First World War, Schnabel’s interests changed. He virtually abandoned chamber music in favour of composition and solo recitals. Beethoven’s music assumed an increasingly important place in Schnabel’s repertoire. In 1927 he gave the first of several recital series featuring all 32 numbered sonatas. The 1920s proved to be a glorious time for Berlin and for Schnabel and Behr. The family’s large apartment, with its four grand pianos, became an important meeting-place for the leading musicians of the era. Through the 1930s, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Schnabel divided his time mostly between Tremezzo in Italy, where he taught a summer course, and London, where in 1932 he had begun recording Beethoven’s solo piano music at Abbey Road Studios. He was fifty when he finally consented to record for HMV. His recordings, the first complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas on disc, were issued by subscription through the Beethoven Sonata Society (BSS).

In 1937 and 1938, after recording all of the sonatas, Schnabel produced recordings of selected variations and other pieces. On the present disc are works Beethoven intended both for amateurs and professional pianists. The earliest of these pieces is the Rondo in A major, WoO 49, which Beethoven composed at the age of twelve. The Minuet in E flat, WoO82, is also a modest piece dating from 1805. Three years earlier, in 1802, Beethoven composed several important piano works. The Bagatelles, Op. 33, a collection of seven individual pieces, was the composer’s first larger work for amateurs. There were also the sonatas of Op. 31 (contained on Volumes 5 and 6 of the present Naxos Historical series), and, composed immediately after these, his first substantial sets of piano variations, Op. 34 and Op. 35. In these works Beethoven sought to expand upon the Classical methods of variation form. In a letter dating from October 1802, he described Opp. 34 and 35 as ‘written in quite a new style and each in an entirely different way’. With Op. 34 he employs a novel key scheme, progressing from the theme in F major downward by a third with each variation, to D major, B flat major, G major, E flat major, and C minor/C major, preparing a return to the home key in the sixth variation. The set concludes with a highly decorated reprise of the theme marked Adagio molto. The Fifteen Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, is a larger and more ambitious composition. As it served as the model for the finale of the Third Symphony, Op. 35 became known as the ‘Eroica Variations’. In both the symphony finale and the Op. 35 Variations, the bass of the theme is heard first on its own and then with introductory variations with two, three, and then four voices, before the theme is heard in its full form. Beethoven completed the Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77, in 1809. The free and shifting character of its opening material suggests that its origins may go back to the composer’s famous improvised performances. It culminates in set of variations in B major. The title ‘Für Elise’ was given to the very famous Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, as a result of a misinterpretation of the composer’s handwriting. The manuscript, dated 27th April 1810, and titled ‘Für Therese’, was found in the album of Therese Malfatti, a student with whom Beethoven was then in love. Like the Bagatelles of Op. 33, it is a relatively easy work. With this piece Beethoven intended to express his love for Malfatti and also encouragement her to practice.

The BSS released Schnabel’s recordings of these works in Volumes 14 and 15. In his February 1939 review in The Gramophone, the critic Alex Robertson found Volume 14 to be ‘full of “small” Beethoven, and no piece without great interest’. The A major Rondo he found to be ‘very touching and appealing – it is very carefully constructed and not without a hint of what was to be – and the Op. 34 Variations interesting quite apart from their remarkable key-system’. The ‘odd’ Fantasy, Op. 77, was ‘indeed, a really fascinating document’. Turning to Schnabel’s performances, Robertson noted that the pianist’s ‘fine musicianship has rarely been so triumphantly displayed as in this album. Beethoven in furious mood is evidently congenial to him, but at the other end of the scale is his tender and amazingly apt handling of the little early Rondo’. Over all, the critic was satisfied with the ‘excellent’ sound quality, although noting ‘the lack of fullness of tone often present in these albums’.

Despite their imperfections, Schnabel’s set of Beethoven recordings became a classic almost immediately and the yardstick by which all others would be measured. It may be no surprise that his recordings of the sonatas have attracted most attention. Hearing these other works reminds us that Schnabel’s feel for Beethoven extended also to minor works. As he noted in his book My Life and Music: ‘If I spend the same amount of time with a Chopin study or some Beethoven bagatelle, I get tired of the Chopin piece sooner; its demands on me become, after a while, merely external.’ In the works of Beethoven, in the lighter pieces as well as the most profound sonata movements, he found music that demanded an ‘inner participation’.

Brian Thompson

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