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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
voices, especially soprano and bass, solos, duets, and ensembles. The
emotion is pushed to the point where nobody can take it seriously. The
is in Beethoven's "merry" vein. It sounds like Papageno at
the piano. Beethoven ends by playing games with the tempo and throwing
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)