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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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)