BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5. No. 14 in C# minor, op. 27/2 "Moonlight." Sonata No. 15 in D, op. 28 "Pastorale." Sonata No. 16 in G, op. 31/1.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 041 TT: 59:16.

Nicknames. The latest from Pristine Audio's ear-opening releases of the Schnabel Beethoven sonatas. These historic recordings don't sound "historical," as if somebody's burning brush in front of the microphone. Indeed, they sound to me as good as Fifties mono. We're about half-way through Pristine's projected set. I do like the fact that the label has released the sonatas in order, rather than split them up for economic or marketing reasons, especially since I own neither a multi-disc player nor a programmable one and I learn something following Beethoven from one sonata to the next.

I don't think it accidental that people know the nicknamed sonatas more than the others. I've got nothing at all against any of the chosen few, but they do tend to keep some of Beethoven's best from a wider audience. However, the Moonlight label, I admit, does annoy me. Of course Beethoven didn't name it that. Ludwig Rellstab, one of the poets of Schubert's Schwanengesang, remarked that the sonata reminded him of a moonlit lake (or maybe the moonlit lake reminded him of the sonata). At any rate, the idea struck deep, to the extent that the tail began absurdly to wag the dog. It's a rare pianist, even a professional one, all in the service of moonshine, who plays what Beethoven actually wrote. The sonata has become one of those popular pieces nobody knows.

The confusion the piece has sown shouldn't surprise us. This sonata is unprecedented. The sonata opens, not with the usual "grabber," but with something more appropriate to a middle movement. Furthermore, it sings in a new way, far from the opera conventions of the classical era. If we judge by the plethora of "new starts" in Beethoven's sonatas from this period, we strongly feel him chafing against the classical conventions. Something's on the boil.

The first problem is tempo. Beethoven writes "alla breve," which means that the measure proceeds in a slow two rather than in a slow four -- Deedeedeedeedeedee Deedeeedeedeedeedee, as opposed to Dee-dle-dee Dee-dle-dee Dee-dle-dee Dee-dle-dee. This moves things out of the realm of E. F. Benson's soulful amateur, Lucia (indeed, this movement is the only one she can play). The second problem is that Beethoven specifies senza sordino. This doesn't mean pressing the middle pedal, which Beethoven would have indicated by the notation una corda. Rather, the pianist should raise the dampers by keeping the sostenuto pedal pressed throughout the entire movement. Almost nobody follows this direction, and a lot is lost by this failure. Beethoven has in mind a more radical texture, an "after-sound" of overtones, a shimmering tonal wash. When a pianist observes the markings, we get a very different piece -- a ghostly funeral march, one which Edwin Fischer compared, musically, to the death of the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni. We're a long way from the lake.

The second-movement scherzo, over in a moment, pierces the gloom like a piece of sunlight. Scherzo means joke, and Beethoven gives us one, where the right hand syncopates, anticipating the left, like an over-eager puppy who can't wait to jump at the ball. With the finale, we finally arrive at a sonata movement, normally placed first. As a sonata, it's structurally conservative, but its visceral power is again something new. It has lost none of its oomph over the years.

Schnabel's first movement is a shade slow, but not as slow as some. There's some stress on the sostenuto pedal but no all-out commitment. All in all, it's a via media reading. Schnabel keeps the scherzo daisy-fresh and retains the storm of the finale without crossing over into hokum.

Again, Beethoven did not give the name Pastoral to his next sonata, but here there seems to be a greater justification for the tag. The first-movement rhythm calls to mind the finale of the Sixth Symphony, and the work begins with a long tonic pedal that evokes bagpipes and the musette. Here as well, one senses the composer's push toward new expressive boundaries in the first movement, although less obviously apparent than in the Moonlight. You feel a beautiful "roll" in the musical line, something that Schubert and Mendelssohn will take up later.

I know I keep saying this, but the second movement represents yet another expressive widening. Structurally, it's a very simple A-B-A song form. It begins as a serious little march -- not a funeral march, but one of grim determination. The central episode, on the other hand, puts us in the middle of chirping birds. If composition is literally the art of putting things together, how can one explain these radically different passages side by side? The little march returns, and then Beethoven gives us a hint. In a coda, the birds appear again, but this time the march has taken their uninhibited gaiety. Beethoven gives us a dramatic, almost narrative structure, where events do not remain emotionally discrete, but influence others.

A scherzo, jaunty as a country drive follows, interrupted by a brief sprinkling of rain.

The finale reverts to overt pastoral tropes. The rondo subject refers to the bagpipe tonic drone of the first movement. It all seems fairly straightforward, but Beethoven begins to throw curves our way -- the first, a highly contrapuntal episode of an intensity we will see later in the Sonata No. 31, op. 110, and other late Beethoven. The episodes get more lively, and the sonata seems about to end in a vigorous, but expected way. Then Beethoven springs his second surprise: a coda of breathtaking virtuosity. So far, a decent amateur could have surmounted any difficulty. This coda more or less locks the door against the noodler. Indeed, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other Beethoven piano work, other than the much later Diabelli Variations and the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata, that demands so much pure finger-work.

With the Sonata No. 16, we arrive at the country of Zanya. We've seen Haydnesque wit before, as in, for example, Piano Sonata No. 9, but this sonata goes beyond that to something rougher -- a difference on the order of Noël Coward vs. Benny Hill, a knockabout vaudeville. The first movement, a march, begins with the joke of the pianist whose hands aren't quite together. Of course, many pianists don't synchronize their hands absolutely, especially when they play something like a Chopin nocturne, and we think nothing about it. Indeed, we often consider such playing very beautiful. However, in that case, the left hand anticipates the right. Here, the right anticipates the left. Technically, I suppose, it's a syncopation, but the gap is too short for the ear to accept, particularly in a march. The hesitation becomes the visual equivalent of someone walking with left arm synched to left leg and right to right, rather than left synched to right and vice versa. Actually, I knew a guy, addicted to difficult repertoire, who played like that. It was like watching somebody twitch. Beethoven intersperses the flubs with passages requiring precise virtuosity, particularly those with fiendish lickety-split runs.

The second movement, one of the very longest in the Beethoven sonata cycle, sends up the Italian opera. A beautiful, essentially simple melody gets decorated to within an inch of its life, as if somebody had hijacked a truckful of rhinestones and taken a Bedazzler to the score. We get various voices, especially soprano and bass, solos, duets, and ensembles. The emotion is pushed to the point where nobody can take it seriously. The rondo finale is in Beethoven's "merry" vein. It sounds like Papageno at the piano. Beethoven ends by playing games with the tempo and throwing gaps into the line, all to break out into a tearaway finish and a final joke at the uncoordinated pianist's expense.

Schnabel certainly gets the jokes and, compared to some pianists, takes a little of the cruelty off by investing a bit of warmth. The aria, often savagely satiric, retains the humor but is also extraordinarily beautiful. Furthermore, it goes on for more than 12 minutes, and Schnabel never lets the interest drop. In fact, he gives the lie to those who claim that Beethoven was a poor melodist. This one's ravishing. Because I'd been dealing in historical recordings, whose transfers varied in quality, color and warmth never really entered into my mental image of Schnabel's playing. I liked him for his rhythm and for his architectural virtues. The transfers here, not merely washed and scrubbed but restored to pristine life, open up new windows on both Beethoven and Schnabel. Historical audio restoration is in its infancy. Heaven knows what we'll be treated to in five years.

S.G.S. (November 2011)