BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 10. Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, op. 110. Sonata No. 32 in c, op. 111. Variations & Fugue in E-flat, op. 35, "Eroica."
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 048 TT: 68:43.

O brave new world! The last volume in Pristine's releases of Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas. There's more Schnabel Beethoven to come. Pristine has the distinction of submitting the masters to modern digital editing techniques, and this has resulted in the best-sounding incarnation of the Schnabel set. They are limited, of course, by the state of the masters, but at their best they give you a post-World War II mono sound (Schnabel recorded these from the early to mid-Thirties).

Writers generally see Beethoven's last three piano sonatas as a group. For one thing, he worked on them simultaneously. However, they do stand distinct from one another, although they share certain traits of late Beethoven -- a highly charged tension between chaos and order, emotional ambiguity, and a renewed interest in counterpoint, likely brought on by the composer's renewed study of Bach. We've already looked at Sonata No. 30 (see my review) and thus have arrived at the final two. All three sonatas come at a point where Beethoven has severe health problems, liver-related. He almost doesn't make it.

Let me say first that I have no idea what Beethoven's greatest piano sonata is. At the level he composes, the concept of The Greatest strikes me as ridiculous. You might as well decide that Hamlet is a greater play than King Lear, or vice versa. I will say that my favorite of the sonatas is No. 31. My preference may well arise from the fact that I first heard it live -- from an indifferent player, incidentally. It allowed me to concentrate on the work itself, details of which every half-minute or so gobsmacked me. Furthermore, as the years have passed, I continue to find new things in it.

For me, this sonata of the three refers most directly to Beethoven's sickness, as we shall see. Incidentally, there should be no breaks, or at least very short ones, between movements. Pristine, unfortunately, gives you full separation. I have no idea what pauses Schnabel took in concert. The first movement meditates, but if you dig, you find consequences that span movements. For example, the first three and the final measures feature a sequence of rising fourths (take off the initial note), which will have a terrific payoff in the last movement. Schnabel realizes the direction "Moderato cantabile molto espressivo" with a noble singing quality to his playing, something, in my opinion, he doesn't get enough credit for.

After the meditation softly dies away, a grotesque scherzo crashes in, of a kind we don't see again until Mahler. The minimum break emphasizes the contrast in tone and dynamic. For his main strain, Beethoven joins together two folk songs: "Unsre Katz hat Kätz'ln g'habt" (our cat had kittens) and "Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, wir sind aller lüderlich (roughly, I'm a slob, you're a slob, we're all slobs). Beethoven mixes the nobility of the meditation with the low roughhouse of this scherzo. The trio is even wilder, fast runs of descending fourths with zany syncopated leaps in the bass. It's as if a watch has exploded, and you see the innards scattering all over the floor. Schnabel has plenty of energy and conveys the daffiness of the movement. It ends with a quick damp-down to sobriety, which should provide a transition to the final movement. Unfortunately, due to the track break, not here.

We begin with a mournful adagio in which the composer seems lost, casting about for security or certainty. This movement gave Beethoven the most trouble, to judge by the number of revisions, corrections, and second and third thoughts on the page. Much of its effect comes from the una corda pedal of the time. Each piano key normally strikes three strings. The una corda pedal shifts the keyboard action so that the hammer strikes only one string (una corda). Beethoven's piano had another pedal that let the hammer strike two strings. So you could achieve a range of dynamics with subtle timbral variations across one, two, or three strings. The modern piano has lost this second pedal. The player must compensate for the lack of the mechanism with his own skill.

Much of the movement's beginning resembles the opening to the finale of the Ninth. Beethoven takes up, rejects, and moves on to several ideas until we get to a quote from Bach's St. John Passion, from the aria "Es ist vollbracht" (it is finished), the cry of Jesus on the cross, although not in Bach's manner -- more of a Classical treatment. Again, Beethoven had bouts with serious illness around this time. This could refer to that. This "klagendes Lied" dissolves into the start of a fugue, whose subject consists of sequences of rising fourths (remember the first movement?). It feels like the soul rising from the sickbed and gradually coming into triumph. However, the fugue runs out of steam about half-way through, and we're back to the depths of the St. John again and the lament, "ermüdert klagend" (mourning, exhausted) until ten chords sound like the tolling of deep bells and their fadeaway into the air. The fugue starts up again, this time with the subject turned upside-down with sequences of descending fourths. At this point, Beethoven begins to cram the fugue with contrapuntal swifties: subject augmentation (where the subject proceeds twice as slow), diminution (where the subject proceeds three times as fast), stretto, introduction of the subject at unexpected points in the phrase, as if instances just keep tumbling out of a bag. Finally, the fugue gives way to a pianistic blaze, much like the end of the Ninth. This is one of the most powerful fugues not by Bach, and the differences between Bach's fugues and this one interest me. In general, Bach's fugues convey the impression of immense sturdiness and stability, the feeling that the cosmos, no matter how intricate, is still ordered. Beethoven gives us something else, something more dynamic, at least in his late fugues. He continually flirts with pulling everything apart, usually to painstakingly reassemble again. Here, we have the spiritual drama of rising from the sickbed, relapse, and a second rise ending in a manic blaze.

Schnabel earns his laurels in the first part of the finale, keeping the improvisatory feel without getting lost in the tall grass. The fugue sweeps along with great drama, but some counterpoint gets obscured. I like Charles Rosen here (Sony, not currently available).

All three sonatas represent a great leap from their predecessors, even the "Hammerklavier," in terms of the new possibilities that opened up to composers, and not just in piano writing. They give a richness, a sense of worlds, much like such works as Lear, Faust, the Blakean epics, and the novels of Faulkner and Joyce. Music didn't resemble this before, and composers aspired to it after.

The Sonata No. 32, Beethoven's last, gets all sorts of things written about it as the Last Sonata, but I suspect that the composer didn't know it was his last. True, he didn't spend the years he had left writing another, but he had undergone multi-year gaps before. He had even sworn off the genre at least once. It consists of two rather substantial movements. According to contemporaries, Beethoven had originally planned on three, but then decided that two sufficed.

The first movement is in Beethoven's "own" key of c-minor. Most of his c-minor pieces -- the Pathétique, the Third Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, for example -- share certain emotional similarities, a feeling of classical tragedy, but this seems new, with a heightened aura of the grotesque. It begins with the majestic dotted rhythm of a Baroque French overture, but the tonality never really settles (due to a bunch of diminished seventh chords, for those of you playing our game at home). This instability spreads over a good deal of the movement. The tone is grave. It resembles the opening of the Pathétique, although unlike that work, we hear it only once. The exposition proper begins with a solo line that leads us to expect a fugal opening, and we seem doomed to disappointment. For Beethoven, it's only the coiling of a spring which lets go into an eccentric, racketing gnome of the theme, hitting fugato writing along the way. That theme seems absolutely unprecedented in its asymmetry, mania, and fragmentation. There are very brief lyrical interludes, temporary points of rest, before the main theme jumps in, more hectic than ever. It threatens to fly apart. The development begins in fragments and leads to a fugato with a subject based on the gnome-like theme. So Beethoven does keep his promise, just not right away. The recap puts the theme in quadruple octaves. I can't think of a previous piano work in which this occurs. Then Beethoven gradually lets the steam out, and a calmer coda ends the piece. Schnabel's performance strikes me as thoroughly characteristic of his Beethoven in general. There is a clam or two, but you don't really care. His rhythmic energy electrifies.

The final movement is another oddity. It begins as a straightforward theme and variations set. The theme resembles Mozart's "Elysium" music in Die Zauberflöte. The theme and each variation is in two parts: two 16-bar phrases, repeated. Pianists tend to set a too-slow tempo, and since the first few variations proceed at the same pulse, they tend to drag things out. Schnabel is especially good at subtly varying the repetitions. As we shall see, Beethoven carefully planned this movement. Variation 1, in 16ths, is a melodic variation with tasty harmonic changes. Its successor, a light dance, moves in 32nds. A bacchanalian third tears off in 64ths. Variation 4 fragments the theme. A near "character piece" follows, with bass opposing treble -- a kind of "Bottom among the fairies," where Beethoven does his best to make the piano shimmer. At this point, the composer makes his characteristic "bold stroke": he abandons variation altogether to explore further the shimmer -- in this case, the trill. I know of no previous music that concentrates on this device, that treats it as musical substance, rather than as ornament, not even Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata. At one point, trills sound in three voices simultaneously, yet another new sound, and something that strikes me as very difficult to bring off. Beethoven then writes a gorgeous transition passage, returning to the variation theme, which rises from the depths. We end with a grand peroration, with music which makes an effect far more powerful than what seems to be on the page. It seems the great fulfillment of the movement, of the sonata, and really of the cycle itself. Schnabel taps into what lies beyond the notes, taking us to a transcendent space.

You might, after this, go back to Sonata No. 1, all those decades ago, just to see how Beethoven picked up music by the scruff and how far he carried it. In these sonatas, the musical landscape changed several times.

The disc ends with the "Eroica" Variations of 1802. Although the theme appears here and in the finale of the Third Symphony, the nickname slightly misleads, since Beethoven finished the symphony two years later. Furthermore, the theme appeared even earlier in the 1800 ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and in one of the composer's contredanses. A bit of what Beethoven does in these 15 variations (plus fugue and coda) shows up in the symphony's finale. However, this is a fine work in its own right. Unusually, Beethoven doesn't begin with the theme itself, but with its bass line and varies that three times in an extended intro. At the fourth time, the theme finally appears. We then move to the variations proper. Variation 1 is a country dance, Variation 2 brilliant, Variation 3 a quick march which foreshadows something like Schubert's famous Marche militaire. The next few variations consist of fragments of the theme over a florid bass line, a gavotte, and the theme in minor mode. With the seventh variation, we get a gossamer canon at the octave in two parts, separated by repeated heavy chords. A melting lyrical variation follows, a bit like Mendelssohn, and then a "hunting" variation. Variation 10 evokes bits of glass shattering. Variation 11 recalls Haydn, while the next pits a rising treble answered by a falling base. Variation 13 unleashes a slew of grace notes. Variation 14, a Baroque lament in minor mode, is followed by the longest variation of the set -- a hymn similar to some of Mozart's Masonic music. There are even variations within this variation. As it proceeds, one senses a dramatic impulse behind the music. You can almost see a stage and singers. Unusually, it ends on the dominant, leading us directly to the fugue, which uses the bass line as the subject. One notices that the subject often enters on unexpected pitches. The theme comes in as a countermelody. But it becomes apparent that Beethoven isn't really interested in fugue as such, since he drops it about halfway through for a straightforward variation on the theme and winds up with a coda on the first few notes of the theme.

While it lacks the monumentality of later Beethoven variations, it's still an imaginative, solid piece of work, with plenty of poetry and surprise. Schnabel lets you in on its quality, without trying to inflate it.

This final volume in Schnabel's Beethoven sonata cycle from Pristine currently stands as the best recorded incarnation. If you have even the EMI set, from the same masters, these releases will open your ears.

S.G.S. (February 2012)