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
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
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
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
follows immediately. It trades in singing, rather than dazzle. Although
he takes it a little too fast to suit me, Schnabel manages to suggest
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
I can't wait to review the next volume.
S.G.S. (November 2011)
(ALL PRISTINE CDS CAN BE PURCHASED FROM PRISTINE