BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 7. No. 21 in C, op. 53 "Waldstein." Sonata No. 22 in F, op. 54. Sonata No. 23 in f, op. 57 "Appassionata." Sonata No. 24 in F#, op. 78 "À Thérèse."
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 043 TT: 66:27.

"There is no off position on the genius switch" -- David Letterman. One of the dangers a masterpiece runs into is, oddly enough, general acceptance, without question or hesitation, of its classic status. One easily falls into the trap of taking one's mental furniture for granted. For example, how many of us have read or seen a play by Shakespeare or Sophocles in the past year, or watched a Hitchcock movie, or listened to a Haydn string quartet or Wagner's Ring? We often tend to say, "Sure, they're great," as we pass by. On the other hand, when we finally stop and pay attention, these works usually strike us full force yet again.

Of Beethoven's piano sonatas, I heard the "Waldstein" third, roughly fifty years ago, after the "Moonlight” and the "Pathétique." My father had brought home an LP of Schnabel playing Sonatas 21-23. The "Waldstein" grabbed me immediately, despite the fact that in those days, Beethoven usually aroused in me total indifference. I was all hot for Renaissance music, Bach, and Modern music, and the Nineteenth Century seemed largely predictable and old-hat. When I say "grabbed," I mean its hooks struck deep. I keep returning to the "Waldstein," far more often than once a year, and it has never palled. Now, that's a classic.

The "Waldstein" revolutionizes piano writing. From the opening bars, you hear previously unheard textures. Note especially the string tremolando effect in the second period of the first movement. As in previous sonatas, Beethoven uses the different registers -- high, middle, low -- as contrasting "orchestral" sections. Here, however, the contrasts are even sharper. The repeated eighth-note chords of the first theme foreshadow those of the Piano Concerto No. 4. In the sonata, they're chunkier. One of the most brilliant sonatas, it needs a virtuoso technique, more so than any Beethoven sonata up to that time. Schnabel runs into occasional difficulties in that regard. Indeed, contemporary pianists aren't always clean. Some passages are so difficult that Beethoven specifies notes a player can leave out, and I suspect that some Schnabel's flubs arise from his attempt to play every note. Overall, the first movement's main idea is to contrast major and minor thirds, ascending and descending. Furthermore, Beethoven loads it with harmonic marvels. The first phrase, for example, in C is followed by its repetition a second lower, in B-flat. This simply doesn't happen in the music of the time. Furthermore, tonal centers often change by thirds, rather than by the usual fourths and fifths, as shown by the appearance of the second subject in E. We see this modulation a lot in Schubert (practically a fingerprint), and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts he took it from Beethoven. But aside from this "inside baseball" stuff, it's Beethoven's sense of easy mastery over the entire composition that stands out. You feel that at every significant point the composer could have chosen from any number of "inevitable" continuations and that he chose the most amazing.

Beethoven originally wrote another slow movement ("Andante favori"), probably among the first completed pieces of the sonata. This movement still survives. He played it for his friends, who thought it good, but unsuitable to the other two movements -- an acute criticism. Thin-skinned, Beethoven sulked but eventually came up with something extraordinary. The new slow movement, as far as I can tell, has no precedent, in that it merely varies short, fragmentary motives, introductory gestures in unsettled harmonies, rather than sings or dances in full-blown themes. We seem to watch Beethoven in the process of deciding what to do next. Time hangs and pressure builds as we wait for something to happen. The movement, it turns out, serves as a transition to the rondo finale.

The finale comes as a release of tension, like a frozen river thawed and on the move. Because of this, many pianists jump the gun and begin it too fast, but we still have a way to go and a presto coda, to boot. The main theme has the sound of bells in it, and as the movement proceeds, we hear all the bells in town going off at once. Overall, it's a super-rondo -- that is, a rondo of greater-than-classical-normal proportions and weight -- whose function it is to ratchet up tension and release. It always puts me in mind of a roller-coaster car going slowly up and down a series of grades, some steeper than others, until the final monster descent. Again, new textures help make part of its effect. It begins in Beethoven's favorite pedal wash, in this case with clashing major and minor thirds.

Despite a clambake of splonks and splats, Schnabel remains the standard against which I measure all other pianists in this sonata. He has the surest grasp of tempi and overall rhetorical structure as well as electrifying rhythm. He knows when to push forward and when to hold back. I've never heard a better rendering of this sonata.

A good college friend of mine studied piano. A wonderful musician, he had a touch that would have made Gieseking weep. His tastes ran to Impressionism and Modernism, and he hated playing Beethoven -- something about the way the music lay under the hands. However, the college required a Beethoven sonata on the senior recital, so he tried to find the shortest one he could. He settled on the Sonata No. 22, not all that well known. It tends to get hidden between the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata." In two movements, it hasn't the scale of the others, but you shouldn't underestimate it. Beethoven himself thought highly of it, as well he might. The level of invention soars, and the score rates as one of Beethoven's most experimental. It comes from a particularly fecund period in Beethoven's career, roughly contemporary with the "Eroica," the Razumovsky quartets, and the Fourth Piano Concerto, in addition to the two sonatas. I loved it the first time I heard it, and, as I say, I felt no special love for Beethoven at the time.

The first movement -- as Beethoven says, "in the tempo of a minuet," but not a minuet -- contains rhythmic and phrasing echoes of the second movement rejected from the "Waldstein" -- the "Andante favori." It's not a sonata. Instead, it contrasts two ideas, a serene melody (A) with a rambunctious all-hell-breaking-loose (B). Beethoven varies both ideas with each appearance, and the form is ABABA with a coda, which features an incredibly dissonant minor-ninth chord -- again, not something seen before.

The second movement is a perpetuum mobile in sixteenths. It reminds me a lot of Scarlatti and Beethoven's own Sonata No. 12, op. 26. It sparkles. Many pianists take it too fast, as if it were mere fireworks, but there are reasons why they shouldn't. It certainly moves, no doubt about it, but equally impressive are the unprecedented harmonic changes. It begins in F and its first period ends on the dominant C. However, it immediately takes off to the distant key of A-flat, and from there to tonal Outer Mongolia. I flatter myself that I have a decent ear, but without a score I can't tell you all the twists he takes. It's as if you opened a door to your backyard and suddenly stepped out at the Grand Canyon. It also exhibits rather odd proportions: a first section of 20 bars, a development and recapitulation of 140, with a 27-bar coda. As usual in his more radical works, Beethoven puts in tons of expressive markings, trying to control the interpretation as much as he can. Those marks alone invalidate the "sewing-machine" approach to this movement, and they guide the shape of phrases and dynamic gradations. However, it's the coda that nails it – the main theme at warp speed. If you're already hurtling through, you dull the shock of the contrast. Schnabel takes the movement a bit fast, although he manages to relax within it. You do get a faster tempo with the coda, but it's more like a shift from fourth to overdrive rather than from fourth to what-in-heaven's-name-was-that.

I might as well confess my depravity right away. Although I respect the "Appassionata," I've never particularly cared for it and really can't tell you why it leaves me so cold. It definitely counts among Beethoven's hits, and Beethoven, I think, deliberately set out to write a monument. One can describe the sonata as two storms surrounding a lull. One feels most of the time a lowering, menacing atmosphere -- for me, dramatic, perhaps tragic, rather than passionate, but again, Beethoven didn't know the subtitle, which appeared after the composer's death on an arrangement for piano 4-hands (believe it or not). Actually, I can easily believe it. The dynamic and textural extremes in this work are so violent, they probably couldn't be realized on most pianos of the day. The "Appassionata" is one of those works that inhabit a fluid space between piano and orchestra. That is, the composer has conceived the music on such an epic scale, it cries out for an orchestra, but has tied its effects so tightly to the sound of a piano that I imagine a successful orchestration pretty near impossible.

The first movement is unusual in that, contrary to classical practice, the exposition does not repeat. It begins pianissimo with an idea that descends and ascends by chord-tones. It then moves up a half-step, into what's called Neapolitan harmony (in the key of f, a G-flat chord), something Beethoven resorts to in this period especially as way to provide an expressive goose or even jolt. The tone of D-flat, especially resolving to C, also assumes great significance throughout the sonata. The rhythm of this bit foreshadows the "fate" pattern (short-short-short-long) of the Fifth Symphony, four years later. The primary idea begins again, softly at first on the descent, and a fortissimo crash on the ascent, heralding the storm. A noble second theme in major mode strongly ties back to the main idea. The movement brims with dramatic thrashing about, with appropriate "breathers," obviously effective.

The second movement is an almost-straightforward variation set. The key is D-flat. The contrasts here show up mainly in the opposition of left and right hand, staccato and legato. The first variation moves in eighths, the second in sixteenths, and the third and final in thirty-seconds, with the last featuring an Alberti bass. A coda based on theme fragments seems to wind down to calm resolution, but Beethoven pulls the rug out from under. He ends instead on a diminished chord, first softly arpeggiated and then hammered. This leads directly to the finale, "Allegro ma non troppo" (fast, but not too fast) -- a marking often ignored -- a near perpetuum mobile, like a driving rain, which influenced later composers like Mendelssohn. Like the Sonata No. 22 finale, it has strange proportions. Again, there's no exposition repeat, and the development and recapitulation are much, much longer -- a snippet followed by two large chunks. Toward the end, Beethoven surprises us with an even faster, more frenetic czardas, presto, presto, presto.

I find Schnabel inconsistent. The reading undoubtedly has its thrilling moments. The third movement especially will leave you breathless. However, overall Schnabel takes things either a bit too fast or way too fast. In the finale, this means that the switch from allegro non troppo to presto is imperceptible. Indeed, the general pulse doesn't change, and Schnabel's attempt to ramp up the tempo even further results in indiscriminate banging.

It takes four years after the "Appassionata" for Beethoven to write another piano sonata. Some writers speculate that the earlier score intimidated Beethoven when he contemplated a successor. However, one can see many other reasons, none of them psychological, for the lull. He wrote the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, revisions to Fidelio, the Mass in C, the overtures Leonore No. 1 and Coriolan, the Triple Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 4, the piano concerto arrangement of the Violin Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, the Razumovsky quartets, the Cello Sonata in A, and the "Archduke" and "Ghost" Piano Trios, all the while struggling against increasing deafness. And this is just the big stuff. It's not as though he was dogging it.

The Sonata No. 24, when it finally appears, resembles Sonata No. 22, rather than its monumental predecessor. Among the most lyrical sonatas in the cycle and of modest scope, it became one of Beethoven's favorites. The composer dedicated it to a student, Countess Therese von Brunsvik, yet another candidate for the "immortal beloved," and thus in some quarters the sonata has picked up the nickname "À Thérèse." Because of its unusual key of F#, so formidable to amateur pianists with its six sharps (Irving Berlin notwithstanding), Beethoven's publisher initially worried about sales. Even today, you don't encounter it all that much. The first movement's introduction consists of a beautiful melody, never to be heard again, which contains the main thematic seeds of the movement: a rising third and a dotted rhythm. These get transformed into an even better melody -- radiant and heartfelt -- which serves as the first subject.

The second movement, a sonata-rondo, is one of Beethoven's wittiest, full of Haydnesque caprice. The main theme, which leaps about like a happy puppy, has within it echoes of "Rule Britannia," a tune Beethoven not only knew but on which he had written a set of variations. It manages to convey considerable substance, despite its brief length. In the first movement, Schnabel strikes me as at times too emphatic, too hard, trying to find drama where there really is none, but in the second, he's perfect, just stepping up to the line of zany and capturing not only the humor, but the sanity of Beethoven's humor.

I've raved about the sonic results of Pristine's engineering before. Here, the results are slightly more mixed, mainly in the "Appassionata," which often seems muddy. It was muddy on my original LP, too. Apparently there's only so much you can do (or should do) with a master recording.

S.G.S. (January 2012)