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 harmonically.

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)