BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1. No. 1 in f, op. 2/1. Sonata No. 2 in A, op. 2/2. Sonata No. 3 in C, op. 2/3.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 037 TT: 67:23.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2. No. 4 in E-flat, op. 7. Sonata No. 5 in c, op. 10/1. Sonata No. 6 in F, op. 10/2.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 038 TT: 55:53.

Once more, dear friends. Schnabel's EMI Beethoven sonatas achieved legendary status almost since it appeared in Thirties. It holds the distinction of the first complete integral set of the Beethovens. Since then, it has seldom been out of the catalogue -- one of the monuments of recorded music and a touchstone of Beethoven playing. I remember the day my father brought home a volume of its LP incarnation under the rubric "Great Recordings of the Century," containing sonatas 21 ("Waldstein"), 22, and 23 ("Appassionata"). These, incidentally, were the first Beethoven sonatas I'd heard beyond the "Pathétique" and the "Moonlight," in the repertory of all the junior-high piano nerds I knew. The new Beethovens set me on my tush, particularly the "Waldstein."

The early sonatas don't get all that much play, especially compared to the late ones and those with nicknames -- a shame, since they're full of wonderful music. Usually, writers think of them as too dependent on Haydn. Beethoven, despite his early Oedipal slams of his teacher, depended on the older man's practice throughout his career. Of course, he also extended Haydn and does so here, even in the very first sonata. The first movement, for example, begins with what is known as a "Mannheim rocket," a widely-used Classical riff -- essentially an ascending arpeggio, a figure taken from composers of the Mannheim School like Dittersdorf. Mozart uses the device to open the finale of the Symphony No. 40. Beethoven's development section begins with the rocket falling to earth, and it begins on a tart dissonance -- F-flat against E-flat -- something that probably would have startled Haydn, if not actually shocked him, since Haydn could muster up his own surprises. Furthermore, all the movements in the sonata are in F, major or minor. Usually, a composer likes to put different movements in different keys, a basic way of achieving variety. Beethoven eschews this, although within a movement the modulations can get quite hairy. The second sonata requires virtuosity of a sort seldom previously required of pianists, while the third points the way to late Beethoven and even Schubert. I must admit that I don't think every Beethoven piano sonata a masterpiece. I suspect he wrote one or two to keep the pot boiling and the money coming in, but these early sonatas don't belong there. For one thing, it's the outset of Beethoven's career. He can't afford to publish an indifferent work.

The fourth sonata comes roughly two years later, and what a difference. For one thing, it's massive, compared not only to its predecessors but to most of the Beethoven sonatas that came after. Only the "Hammerklavier" runs longer. It's not just the length, but the "oceanic roll" in the work's progress that introduces something new in musical expression. I don't look down on the first three sonatas, but this is the first one I think of as characteristically Beethoven. Even more so than the first three sonatas, it may be way too difficult for amateurs, although Beethoven did dedicate it to one of his aristocratic pupils, the Countess Barbara von Keglevics. The fifth shows a new concision, where every note packs a punch, and is the first Beethoven sonata that contains only three movements. Interestingly, it opens with a variation on yet another Mannheim rocket. It's also the first Beethoven sonata that, like the much later Fifth Symphony (also in c), not only uses rhythm to drive the music along but gives it an argumentative importance equal to that of melodic themes. Furthermore, there's a new heft in the texture. Where Haydn and Mozart aim for clarity, Beethoven, in the words of Andras Schiff, "writes for the fist, or the two fists." Beethoven pretty much owns the key of c-minor, just as Mozart owns g-minor, in that the keys evoke from each a deep, thoroughly characteristic response. There's a family look among the Sonata No. 5, the "Pathétique" sonata, and the Fifth Symphony.

The Sixth Sonata gets overlooked in big-time Beethoven criticism, but it's one of my favorites. I wouldn't call it even a "guilty" pleasure. To me, it's Beethoven taking a look back at Haydn's sonatas, but a new look. Filled with good humor and surprises, it offers rhythmic stops and starts, as if the composer has absent-mindedly forgotten for a moment where he was going, false recapitulations, and faux fugues. Paradoxically, the pseudo-fugues show at least as much contrapuntal mastery as most real ones. I find Schnabel a bit heavy-handed here and there, as if he can't wait for more Sturm und Drang. Whatever storms break in this sonata, they're over in the blink of an eye. Rather, Beethoven writes at his wittiest and most suave. He replaces the usual slow movement with a relaxed, gently melancholy scherzo -- the song of a young person weeping over a lost love. In character, it resembles a Brahms intermezzo, and indeed you hear a lot of what Brahms took from it, particularly from the consoling trio. The finale is an exhilarating madcap, light as soap bubbles, despite a "rustic" theme, where the faux fugue becomes almost a principle and yet has obvious connections to a fast country dance.

EMI still has the set, but over the years I've also seen it on Pearl, Arkadia, Musical Concepts, and Membran International. Now Pristine Audio has plans to release the set, volume by volume. At the rate they're going, they'll wind up around ten discs. Most of the others manage in eight.

Despite the same base material, these are not equal sets. The sound is better on some than on others. The Arkadia is pretty much a cracklefest. I thought it didn't matter, since Schnabel had other virtues beside tonal beauty. I preferred the sound on Pearl until now, but I must say that Pristine has surpassed its predecessors. The sound quality made me think that the performances had been bundled into a time machine and sent into the mono Fifties -- no static, no hiss, no overbearing treble, and much truer to the live sound. Indeed, it made me rethink my conception of Schnabel. He had always seemed to me a straight-ahead, rough-and-ready player, with a dominating rhythmic excitement. Without losing any of Schnabel's virtues I knew about, Pristine's incarnation showed me the subtlety of his line, the seamless naturalness of his crescendos and diminuendos, and his singing qualities. The last had totally escaped me.
Nevertheless, as fine as this set is, Schnabel shouldn't be your only guide to Beethoven. More than most composers, Beethoven benefits from many different approaches, and he rewards those players who dig deeply into his music. I do own several complete sets, as well as individual sonatas by various performers. Every one of them has something to teach me about Beethoven.

S.G.S. (August 2011)