BEETHOVEN:  Piano Sonatas, Vol. I.  Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No. 1 (rec. April 23, 24 and 28, 1934).  Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 2 No. 2 (rec. April 9, 1933).  Sonata No. 3 in C, Op. 2 No. 3 (rec. April 16, 27, 1934).
Artur Schnabel, pianist
NAXOS 8.110693 (B) (ADD) TT:  66:26
 

Artur Schnabel's historic HMV recordings of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas plus additional keyboard music filled 16 Seraphim LPs ca. 1969. But originally these performances were available only in the British Commonwealth to "Beethoven Sonata Society" subscribers; when completed they filled 204 78-rpm sides. Schnabel was the first pianist after Hans von Bülow (1830-94) to play all 32 from memory, starting in 1927 (the composer's centenary), a feat he repeated at London in 1932 and New York City in 1936, by which time all had been recorded. Despite the pianist's initial dislike of the medium, he had warmed by the end of nearly four years in Studio 3 at Abbey Road. Stateside, however, only one sonata was released by RCA Victor on 12 78-sides - No. 29, the so-called "Hammerklavier" - although it proved to be the messiest technically in the entire Schnabel discography.

On LPs and CDs his trail-blazing accomplishment has appeared on three different HMV labels: "Great Recordings of the Century" (LP;1963), Seraphim cited above, and Angel (CD; 1991). Meanwhile, the expiration of copyrights enabled three independent companies (most notably Pearl) to offer the collection on CD, albeit expensively. Now, Naxos has turned everything over to Mark Obert-Thorn, whose explanation of which discs he found truest to the piano's timbre is fascinating as well as illuminating. He found the best sound on HMV, despite "a higher than average-level of surface crackle inherent in [their] shellacs." He calls his solution "a balance" between various compromises. He has retained surface hiss "reduced to a minimum" rather than create a harsh glassy treble, and used "computerized declicking to remove clicks and pops, and to tame surface crackle" on British, French and even American pressings (of No. 29). Surface noise, once adjusted to by the ear, does not stop at the end of a side or even a movement, MO-T has kept it constant. And Naxos is letting him release the entire series in chronological order, whereas the Society originally issued the three sonatas comprising Op. 2 in Volumes 7, 4, and 8.

I still remember the excitement in 1956 when RCA issued their LP transfers in albums with each critic's name to whom they were sent embossed in gold on the cover. By then, however, Wilhelm Kempff was at work on his cycle of the entire 32 for German Polydor. I continue to treasure his Opp. 109, 110 and 111 from the first cycle above any since, including Schnabel's, who was an equally profound musician but technically and tonally less fastidious. Kempff went on to make a third cycle for Deutsche Grammophon. I bought his Sonatas 30-32 originally on French Polydor 78s, now on separate Dante CDs in acceptable transfers by Dale Lennick.

Rather than deal separately with each sonata in Op. 2, let me cite Schnabel's seriousness of purpose throughout: nothing is trivial, although two slow movements have a middle-period sound.  But here his fingers did his expressive bidding by and large, as Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers let us hear perhaps more realistically than any transfers to date. No matter how many Beethoven sonata recordings you may own, Schnabel's are the achievements of an artist in his interpretive prime, age 50 to 53. And the fact that they were the first to be recorded in their entirety lends a further cachet that more words would diminish rather than enhance.

R.D. (February 2003)