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Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, March 2005

“It appears the last sonatas are not only the summit’s of Beethoven’s achievement in the sphere of the piano sonata; they crown Schnabel’s, too. Whatever the merits — and there are many — of previous volumes in this invaluable series, this is, aptly, its crowning glory. Schnabel’s grasp of Beethoven’s processes has rarely been equalled in the history of recorded sound and it is a privilege to be able to experience these interpretations in Mark Obert–Thorn’s exemplary transfers. Hiss is low but there — reassuringly so — but it is the quality of the reproduction of piano tone that impresses. Concomitant with that is the appreciation we can now have of Schnabel’s tonal variety. Technically, there may be slips but in this context they are completely irrelevant.

The last three sonatas are hard work if heard one after the other; not usually a course I would recommend, but Schnabel makes it remarkably difficult to turn off.

Op. 109 is the ideal way to begin a disc, easing in as it does here. Schnabel’s true pianissimi make for a world of the utmost intimacy; the return of the opening material at 3’00 is magical. The Prestissimo second movement is true contrast, with no sense of the awkwardness often heard here. Schnabel carries his conception through, stopping for nothing. It is all highly impressive; as is the finale, gorgeous without self–indulgence, a real transportation to realms rarely glimpsed by humans. Fast passages reveal Schnabel’s sterling fingerwork, but it is the sense of space, the grasp of the shape of the work that really impresses. And was that a tear in my eye at the arrival around 9’44? That doesn’t happen too often to hardened reviewers, I can tell you. Technically, the bass trill around 8’32 is magnificent, full of energy. The sense of rest at the end has to be heard to be believed.

Comparisons are largely irrelevant. For a more ‘modern’ interpretation, Pollini’s famous DG recordings of the late sonatas fully deserve their reputation, and many people (not me) swear by Richard Goode. Brendel has long been persuasive in this repertoire. But Schnabel begs to be heard.

In the case of Op. 110 the piano positively sings in the first movement. The recording copes with fortes very well, and left–hand definition is remarkable considering the 1932 date. The coexistence of delicacy and power in this movement encapsulates an important aspect of late Beethoven and Schnabel is keen to present it in stark terms.

Certainly there are technical (accuracy) problems in the tricky second movement, but perhaps less that one might imagine. The finale includes serene calm and thunderous climax. This is earth–shattering music–making.

Perhaps the miracle of this disc is that as one listens to each sonata it is perfect in itself, yet there is a real sense of closure, not just of the individual sonata but of the cycle, at the end of Op. 111. From the beginning of this last sonata, Schnabel has his ears on the long–term. There have been more dramatic openings, but this is the beginning of a long journey. All of which is to contrast with the second and last movement, where, somehow, Schnabel effects an immediate sense of repose. It is marvellous the way the music seems to emerge from within itself; like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, but in sound. This particular passport to Heaven is to be cherished.

A reminder of Schnabel’s true greatness. Magnificent.”

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