BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3. No. 7 in D, op. 10/3. Sonata
No. 8 in c, op. 13 "Pathétique." Sonata No. 9 in E,
op. 14/1. Sonata No. 10 in G, op. 14/2.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 039 TT: 73:34.
The unintended consequences of stardom. The program star, of course, is
the Pathétique, and as such it puts its mates in the shade. I think
it leads to their false underrating. Just compare the Wikipedia article
on the Pathétique to any of the three others, and the patronizing
of them becomes pretty apparent. Furthermore, the stack of recordings of
the Pathétique must dwarf the others at least two-to-one. One of
the things I like about listening to the Beethoven sonatas in order --
as opposed to monuments-only at random -- is that you can see the composer
expanding his compositional possibilities practically from one score to
the next. All the sonatas here not only have wonderful things in them,
but they also show a developing protean musical mind.
In the Sonata No. 7, you can pick out Beethoven heading toward the monothematicism
of the Fifth Symphony. For the Romantics, the watchword was "variety
in unity." Here, it begins with the vigorous opening downward run
of four notes in the bass, which appears both in its normal form and inverted
throughout the entire sonata, but especially in the first movement, as
theme, as accompaniment, and as rhythmically altered in "new" themes.
A "Largo e mesto" slow movement follows, with the basic cell
showing up as a subtheme in the first group, sometimes chromatically altered.
The second group inverts the cell. Overall, Beethoven strives for -- not
tragedy, exactly -- then great sadness and gives himself lots of room to
explore and elaborate. This movement runs almost twice the length of any
other in the sonata. It leads directly to what Beethoven calls a "Menuetto," but
is really more of a triple-time pastoral dance, a major component of which
is the basic cell. The trio, a dialogue between low bass and high treble,
galumphs along. The lively "Rondo" finale for me counts as one
of Beethoven's best, with an enigmatic initial idea that seems to land
always on a question and which allows Beethoven to range pretty far afield
Schnabel performs little miracles of subtlety throughout. He keeps the
slow movement from drag, injects genuine humor into the "Menuetto," and
follows Beethoven's whimsical turns in the finale. Here especially, he
impresses with a variety of dynamic, tempo, and color -- the last not especially
known as a Schnabel trait.
So many know the Pathétique, we don't need to discuss it. However,
it really does represent a quantum leap in Beethoven's expressive arsenal
-- that is, if you knew only the works that came before, you couldn't have
predicted it. It foreshadows much of the rest of the 19th century. I believe
it would have flummoxed, at least initially, both Haydn and Mozart. This
and the Moonlight have probably received more recordings than any of the
other Beethoven sonatas, and you have a huge choice of big names in this
work, from Arrau and Ashkenazy to Serkin and Solomon and beyond. I recently
praised Barbara Nissman's recording on Pierian. However, Schnabel's account
has always been for me, if not the Best Ever, then the touchstone.
It is by no means a technically pristine performance. One hears clams a-plenty,
some pounding (as opposed to playing) at climaxes, and, if you check the
score, a lot of swelling and fading not on the page. Yet, paradoxically,
Schnabel manages to convey the illusion that he has given you what Beethoven
had in mind. The musical line sounds "natural," as if any really
musical person would do it this way, but that's a mistake, since Schnabel's
reading is absolutely individual. The first movement emphasizes the contrasts
between loud and soft. The tender cantabile section of the opening, for
example, gets interrupted by flashes of lightning. On the other hand, the
piece becomes black-and-white. Those lightning bolts don't really change
the character of the singing, as they do when hurled by some other pianists.
However, the starkness of the contrasts imparts a savage, elemental power.
The slow movement also represents something expressively new -- what becomes
the "Beethoven Adagio," seen in such things as the Eroica, the
Ninth, and the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis, as well as the "Nimrod" section
in Elgar's Enigma Variations. The considerable consequences of this movement
in later music history sometimes tempt performers to inflate it with such
Significance, that it actually becomes less expressive. Schnabel goes straight
ahead, allowing the music to speak for itself, and wins the Grail. The
rondo finale is something I think that Haydn and Mozart would indeed recognize.
It lies closer to Classical norms. Schnabel gives ultimately, I think,
an anachronistically Romantic reading -- a bit too dramatic -- although
with such rhythmic electricity that he wins me over.
Sonata No. 9 strikes me as a weird blend of piano sonata and string quartet.
So much of the writing translates perfectly to strings, with pulsing chordal
accompaniments and call-and-response among the various "instruments." Although
not as dark as the Pathétique and much more easy-going, it still
bears the marks of stark contrast -- single-note louds alternating with
single-note softs, sudden fortes, strong syncopations, flirting at the
extremes of both pitch and dynamic. Here, however, it impresses more as
wit than as drama. The triple-time andante second movement -- an amalgam
of slow movement and scherzo -- foreshadows Mendelssohn and Brahms in its
tone of tender melancholy, while the trio tells you something about Schubert.
The rondo finale plays with cascades of runs, both soaring and falling.
One interesting feature: the main theme never comes back exactly the same
way twice. To me, Schnabel hits the right note of geniality, although he
glosses over some of the subtler jokes. Nevertheless, it's a lovable account.
I think Schnabel's reading of the Sonata No. 10 one of his rare misses.
I admit the oddity -- even the odd humor -- of the work. The first movement
is vocal, even operatic in nature, featuring such things as wide leaps
up and down and "sopranos" in thirds, all within a general cantabile.
The second movement, if I remember correctly, may be the first instance
of a variation set in a Beethoven piano sonata. It's a "nursery" march
-- something you can imagine children stepping to in their games. There's
something similar in Schumann's Kinderszenen. The theme is mostly a measure-and-a-half
of staccato or shortened quarters followed by a full half, and the half
almost always falls on the dominant chord. Full of strong, sudden syncopations,
the movement ends on a Haydnesque surprise. The sonata concludes with a
scherzo, whose main theme begins in groupings of two and then lurches into
three. It seems to want to conclude grandly and virtuosically, but instead
it goes out with a quiet poof! Schnabel rushes the first movement a bit,
never really getting the piano to sing. He's also really heavy in the march,
not really hitting the contrasts between loud and soft, and taking the
ending too literally, without his tongue in his cheek. The finale comes
off the best, but again, I think he misses the ending.
Nevertheless, Schnabel overall represents the locus classicus of Beethoven
playing, and the transfers are not merely unbelievably clean but give you
more of Schnabel's tonal qualities and the subtleties (where he bothers
with them) of his musical line. I will review more volumes of the series,
so stay tuned.
S.G.S. (November 2011)