BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6. No. 17 in d, op. 31/2 "Tempest." Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, op. 31/3 "Hunt." Sonata No. 19 in g, op. 49/1. Sonata No. 20 in G, op. 49/2.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 042 TT: 59:12

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces. Around half-way through his cycle of 32 piano sonatas, Beethoven expressed dissatisfaction with those he had written up to that point and resolved to do better. Keep in mind this means that he found the Pathétique and the Moonlight wanting, as well as a number of astonishing works that have no nicknames, so you may feel that he judged himself too harshly. The three sonatas of op. 31 followed. We've discussed the wild and crazy 16th Sonata in a previous review. Sonata No. 17 has received the nickname The Tempest, which actually has some connection with Beethoven himself, rather than originating with somebody else years after its appearance. Anton Schindler, Beethoven's secretary and biographer, asked him to explain the sonata's meaning, and Beethoven replied that for an answer, one should read Shakespeare's play. Nevertheless, Beethoven didn't often indulge in program music. Even the Pastoral Symphony relates more to emotion than to picture, according to the composer himself, although one can certainly find pictures. However, any specific connection between the sonata and Shakespeare's visionary comedy died with Beethoven, no matter how much the suggestion makes you want to speculate.

In the usual sonata, only the first movement is in actual sonata form. We have previously encountered Beethoven sonatas, like No. 12, missing any sonata movement. On the other hand, Sonata No. 16 has nothing but sonata movements. It's in the key of d, fairly rare in Beethoven. Only the Ninth Symphony of all his other major works comes to mind. It begins up in the air, rhythmically and harmonically indeterminate (it starts on a dominant chord in first inversion, for those of you playing our game at home), with a-rhythmic arpeggios interrupted by energetic, even agitated bursts, dissolving into recitative. Indeed, this last becomes such a feature that in some countries the sonata goes under the nickname "Recitativo." This works against the establishment of a steady tempo. The drama of the sonata is energy vs. suspense -- the tempest vs. "noises, sounds, and sweet airs" of the enchanted island. Beethoven constructs an especially tight motific argument and puts in more expressive markings than usual, which indicates, among other things, that he knows he has created something unusual and needs to give the performer as much interpretive help as he can. One fairly interesting factoid: Beethoven quotes the chorale "Es ist vollbracht" (it is finished) from Bach's St. John Passion. Although more associated with the music of Handel, Beethoven not only knew the music of Bach, he played at least parts of the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier in concert, and his notebooks have Bach themes scribbled in the margins. Why he quotes it in the sonata is anybody's guess, and, believe me, a lot of people have guessed. Schnabel emphasizes the strong contrasts of loud and soft, agitated and still -- a "black and white" reading -- and is one of the few pianists to follow Beethoven's radical pedalings, keeping the sostenuto down far longer than most modern players like.

Beethoven conceives of the adagio second movement "orchestrally," breaking up the theme among various registers, as if they were instrumental sections. Given the tenderness of the movement, discovering the amount of the dissonance in it surprises you, but it's gristle tenderized by the soft dynamics and a warm melody. Thinking of The Tempest, I bring up the figure of Miranda, the humanizing element of the play. I want Schnabel to do something other than his usually effective straight-ahead approach to melodies of this type. Here, he's a little too stiff.

I should mention at this point that to me, based on the internal evidence of endings and beginnings, Beethoven wants one movement to follow the other almost without pause. The pauses here are a bit too long. I don't know if that's Schnabel or EMI, but the pauses and especially the dead space between tracks bother me.

The Baroque and Classical idea of a finale was usually a movement that lightened the atmosphere, that "let off steam." Over the years, and especially during this period, Beethoven reconceived the finale by throwing more and more emotional weight onto it, until we have the finale to the Ninth, a piece with large implications for music thereafter. In the process, the finale transforms from "relief" to "apotheosis." Here, the movement designation, "Allegretto," belies the specific gravity of the music. Tempestuous (you should pardon the expression), it out-Pathétiques the Pathétique in its fury, and Schnabel roars.

Sonata No. 18 represents the end of a line -- the last Beethoven sonata in four movements. Predominantly lyrical, it nevertheless begins oddly. We've seen a lot of that in the Beethoven sonatas relatively contemporaneous. Again, it opens in harmonic and rhythmic limbo. One sign of a natural symphonist is the ability to come up with musical ideas that draw out or delay a resolution, that lead to something new. We see that same ability in such sonatas. Beethoven suspends us in time while at the same time increasing (rather than losing) our interest, and we long for the next thing. Here, we have questioning, hesitating phrases from somewhere in left field, in a dotted rhythm (which you can sing to the words "ist es wahr," "is it true") that has great consequences throughout the movement and an answering rhythm (short-short-short-long) that crops up as a major component in other movements. So the "something new" gets tied to something that we've heard before, even down to the level of rhythm, according to the pre-Romantic formulation of beauty, "Variety in Unity." I would say that, like the Fifth Symphony, rhythm becomes the main structural element, both as a unifier and as a generator of variety. For example, the first movement is in triple time. The "natural" phrase is two measures, so a composer has six beats to play with. You usually subdivide six beats as two groups of three, observing the barline, or three beats of two, going "across" the barline -- a gambit known as "hemiola." One can create many different effects from hemiola -- slowing down the musical pulse to half-speed, for example -- or you can use it, as Beethoven does here, to blur the main pulse, to set the music momentarily "adrift." Once more, by dealing with bone-simple melodic ideas and a "moderate" presentation, Beethoven tricks you into thinking this a modest work. This allows him to pull off some really weird stuff without raising an alarm -- the transition to the exposition repeat, for example, where the texture suddenly hollows out and notes just disappear from the line, as if the sonata were to come to an end. Instead, it transforms to the opening motif and continues. Schnabel doesn't miss any of Beethoven's jokes, and he also manages to give a big-hearted reading.

The second movement, a chorale-like tune over a bubbling bass line, brims with good humor. Beethoven labels it a scherzo, but it's not in triple time. I think of it as a source for Mendelssohn's "fairy music," and I can't think of anything like its texture before Beethoven. Mendelssohn, of course, knew Beethoven's music, even the late music, pretty thoroughly. I love what Schnabel does here. He gets the humor and the delicacy, but he brings out the underlying nobility of the movement as well, in a way that makes me hear the finale to the Brahms First Symphony trying to get out. Some commentators fault him for this and call him too heavy. I can see the point, but on the other hand, he provides a stunning insight into the course of the century.

Schnabel nails the graceful minuet which follows, which at first glance seems to revert back to the days of Haydn. Then comes the trio, with ear-opening register leaps and dynamic extremes from note to note -- a brilliant effect gotten by very simple means.

Beethoven marks the finale "presto con fuoco" (extremely fast, with fire), wanting the movement to shoot out like a bat from hell. Schnabel obliges, although at times he sounds as if he's just about hanging on. This movement, incidentally, gives the sonata its nickname of "The Hunt" or "La chasse." We hear hunting horns and trumpet calls. The short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern runs throughout the movement. Schnabel gives us something wild-and-wooly.

Given what we've heard so far, the next two sonatas shock, but through no fault of their own. These are the so-called "leichte" (easy) sonatas. They have ridiculously high opus numbers and late positions in the set, since they come from 1795-97. The anomaly stems from when Beethoven published them. They are firmly modeled on Haydn. Both of them run to only two movements. However, Beethoven still wrote them and they contain some wonderful surprises. Truth to tell, while they lie well within the fingers of a good amateur, they're not interpretively easy. Sonata No. 19 consists of a character piece, almost, which seems Schumann before the fact, and a "hunting" rondo, which begins on an obscured downbeat that emerges after two measures. No. 20 opens with a charming little march, which seems to teeter between three and four beats to a phrase, and a minuet, which comes from the Septet. I remember plowing through this one when I was ambitious to become a decent player. I klunked and clattered, without any charm at all, but I did get through it. As Gustav Holst remarked, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Mostly, Beethoven foxed me with his main strain -- very simple, very bare, and repeated a lot. It courts boredom. I tried all sorts of ways to make it sound different at each recurrence, but as they say, I was trying to put lipstick on my piggy performance. Precisely for this do I admire Schnabel. He keeps the simplicity without becoming trite. These are very suave and classy performances.

Once again, I have to praise Pristine Audio for beautiful transfers. Several companies have released their own versions of the Schnabel set -- from no cleanup at all to various stages of scrubbing -- and Pristine leads the pack.

S.G.S. (November 2011)