BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4. No. 11 in B-flat, op. 22. Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, op. 26 "Marche funébre." Sonata No. 13 in E-flat, op. 27/1 "Quasi una fantasia."
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 040 TT: 61:57.

Yet again. More in the latest transfer of Schnabel's 1930s EMI recordingsto CD. I'm old enough to remember the LPs. Indeed, they gave me my firsthearings of the Beethoven sonatas beyond the Pathétique and the Moonlight. You should know, however, that many labels have issued these Schnabel recordings, with varying sound quality. EMI still has these, and I'd call the sound "historic." You have to make your way through a forest of hiss and crackle, even with the cleanup. For years, I preferred the Pearl releases, but I don't believe them still available. It doesn't matter anyway. Pristine Audio's transfers, comparatively, border on the miraculous, whisking the sound ahead by a couple of decades. Now, I don't have the best set of ears. I began by listening to my grandparents' 78s with steel needles: Caruso, Schumann-Heink, Gallagher and Shean, "Donkey Serenade," George M. Cohan hits, and so on. It took me a very longime to switch to stereo (I considered it a fad), and that was forced on me when I could no longer buy mono new releases. It took me even longer to bring myself to get a decent stereo rig. I could hear differences, but they didn't seem worth the money. I still don't own surround sound. Even
so, what with the little coddling I have indulged in, my ears have become a little more tender. I can no longer tolerate acoustic recordings or "electronic stereo." So this reaches the limit of what I can tell you about sound quality. Within a certain range, it means little to me. However, these reissues have been ear-opening. Most important, they have changed my perception of Schnabel as a player, without being (realistically speaking) up to the electronic paradises built by DG for Pollini, simply because the audio granularity is finer.

Now I can focus on the music and on Schnabel.

A vigorous, virtuosic work, Sonata No. 11 strikes me as the last of a series, in that Beethoven's sonatas so far, while innovative, have nevertheless mainly extended the immediate past, particularly Haydn and the capriciousness and exuberance of his wit. For example, the first movement abounds in Mannheim "rockets" (an upward -- usually -- articulated arpeggio, like the main theme of the finale to Mozart's Symphony No. 40), texturally complicated by quick adornments. It's the texture that's new, as well as a larger sense of scale. The movement begins with a "shake" in thirds -- a gesture that seems simple enough, until you come to play it. Furthermore, the shake runs throughout the movement, as does the idea of thirds. Beethoven builds his themes from thirds. He modulates by thirds, rather than the usual fourths or fifths. Beethoven reveals his instinct for "monothematicism" -- where a piece arises from one musical idea -- a trait which culminates in works like the Fifth Symphony and the Fourth Piano Concerto. The shake is almost always constant, and with its help, Schnabel is able to turn the movement into something like the longest water slide in the world. Beethoven follows this up with a long Adagio, which seems a Classical-era operatic aria translated to the keyboard. One hears several operatic conventions -- "sigh" motives, for example. One has no difficulty picturing the love-lorn heroine on stage for her Big Moment -- the countess, for example, in The Marriage of Figaro. Incidentally, Beethoven's detractors (and even some of his friends) complain that he couldn't write a great melody. You listen to this and wonder what on earth they're talking about. Schnabel sings tenderly enough to break your heart.

After two huge movements, the third-movement Menuetto arrives as a "breather." Mainly lyrical in character, with a dramatic trio, it both looks back at Mozart and hints of Mendelssohn. This music suits Schnabel down to the ground. It resists flashy "Interpretation" and yet can die from inattention. It needs someone who seems to simply play it "naturally" -- for me, one of the most difficult things a musician can do. The rondo finale follows immediately. It trades in singing, rather than dazzle. Although he takes it a little too fast to suit me, Schnabel manages to suggest pastoral fields.

With the Sonata No. 12, you have a sharp break with the previous Beethoven sonatas. I feel Beethoven going into a radically experimental phase, all in the service of a greater range of expression. However, Beethoven doesn't rub your nose in it. This sonata, for example, uses very simple, sometimes folk-like ideas. Indeed, the slow movement -- "Marche funebre sulla morte d'un eroe" (funeral march on the death of a hero) -- became one of Beethoven's hits during his life. They played it at his funeral in his own arrangement for chamber ensemble. That somewhat measures its popularity, since Beethoven usually didn't bother to arrange something he didn't think would sell. Beethoven's innovations lie mainly below the surface.

First, although he calls the piece a sonata, none of its four movement uses sonata procedures. Furthermore, all four movements are based in A-flat tonality (minor for the funeral march, major for the others). They all follow one another without a break -- again, part of Beethoven's drive to unify larger works. When a composer eschews the opportunity to change keys at the end of a movement, he relinquishes a powerful tool for instilling variety. He must find something else to make up the interest correspondingly lost. Beethoven does this structurally. The first movement consists of a theme and five variations. I can think of only one other piano sonata before this that opens in such a way: Mozart's Sonata No. 11 in A, K331, on which Max Reger built his own Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. The theme reminds me of the Mahler Wunderhorn song "Rheinlegendchen," which may mean that both Beethoven and Mahler take from a common folk source. It's an unusual opening, in that it's less aggressive, less of a grabber, more laid back. Yet, if you look at the score, you see a major increase in the amount of expressive markings, especially dynamic ones -- crescendos, diminuendos, sforzandos, subitos, accents, and so on -- than in the earlier sonatas. So Beethoven is particularly concerned that players find the precise emotional note he intends. Furthermore, a great expressive range confronts you from one variation to the next. Indeed, the variation set itself begins to take on "symphonic" or sonata-like implications, with the first two variations comprising an opening "movement" (slow intro followed by an allegro), the third a slow movement, the fourth a scherzo, and the fifth and a coda rounding things off. Heretofore, the Classical variation sets were typically loose amalgamations of individual "choruses," usually arranged in order of increasing brilliance. Beethoven, like Bach before him, turned his attention to the architecture of the entire set as well as to the brilliance of an individual variation. "Brilliance" isn't really the right word here. The joys of this movement are subtle and economical -- the change of one note altering temporarily the harmonic universe, a shimmer in the musical fabric, rather than a blaze. I find Schnabel's playing particularly compelling here -- effective, without poking you in the ribs.

The second movement is a real Beethoven scherzo, greatly resembling the scherzi in the symphonies, particularly that of the Symphony No. 1 (Beethoven called it a minuet; but I don't believe a minuet ever moved that fast), completed the year before, in 1800. There's nothing quite like a Beethoven scherzo, except another one. He left his personal stamp on this genre. Immense vistas open up while at the same time you get the sensation of soaring. Here, he begins in harmonic limbo, settled, however, by the end of the second phrase, and he flirts with the key of f-minor throughout. The funeral march third movement, as I say, accrued great popularity, and it's the movement that impresses me the least. The subtitle, "on the death of a hero," has led some writers to speculate which hero, but no candidate has emerged as the definitively designated. I myself find the movement rather abstract -- genre painting removed from specific history. As such, it's a fine example of its type. Beethoven writes orchestrally here, with piano effects imitating muffled drums, snares, and brass. It portrays externals, rather than meditates on heroism. Schnabel makes his mark with a masterful control over the dynamic shape of the entire piece, and he definitely understands that the piano has become an orchestra. The concluding rondo emerges from the gloom. I strongly agree with Andras Schiff that the player should not "break" from the previous march. The music, the most brilliant so far, leads you to expect a socko finish. Instead, it just winks out. You find yourself like Wile E. Coyote, on whom it has dawned that he has run past the mesa onto thin air. Most players make the ending sound like a mistake. On the other hand, Schnabel really does convey the sensation that you've been left hanging. It's a joke, son.

The first sonata of op. 27 has become almost invisible, due to its mega-famous sib, the "Moonlight" sonata. Both sonatas explore new structural territory. Beethoven subtitles both "quasi una fantasia" (like a fantasia). A sonata "quasi una fantasia" contradicts itself. A classical sonata has a definite shape. A fantasia is free to ramble. Again, none of the sonata's four movements is in actual sonata form. All movements play without a break between them. Once more, this formal seamlessness forces you to consider the sonata in its entirety and sets up an inexorable journey to the end. It plays to Schnabel's great strength: the ability to shape a multi-movement work into a whole. Overall, Beethoven shifts the emotional weight of the sonatas to the last movement.

The sonata opens oddly indeed. It begins as a variation set on a blood-simple theme. Some critics complain of its "four-squaredness" -- everything phrasing four beats at a time. Just when you're about to nod off, Beethoven pulls the rug out from under you and injects pure espresso. Where it comes from, who knows? It's over in an instant, and the variations continue as placidly as a deaf lady who hasn't heard the vicar swear. A
scherzo follows, less than two minutes long -- another brief, manic outburst, enclosing a "hunting" trio. This leads to an adagio -- again, rather short, but nevertheless stately and affecting. Beethoven makes no pretense to transition. He straightforwardly stops the scherzo and starts the adagio. On the other hand, the adagio, to me, functions as a prelude to the allegro vivace finale, a hell-for-leather, all-over-the-place rondo, or so you think. The episodes are brilliant, including a manic fugato, and elements of sonata creep in, as earlier ideas take a bow toward the end. Then Beethoven throws in a surprise: the adagio returns, suspending time and allowing us to catch our collective breath before he shoves in a presto coda, and it's, as Peter Schickele once said, "tutti all the way" to the end. That coda may bring some listeners up short, since it foretells the fugal subject of the Piano Sonata, op. 110, twenty years away.

I can't wait to review the next volume.
S.G.S. (November 2011)