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Schnabel Beethoven Sonatas Nos 22 - 29
Naxos Historical 8.110761-62 [66 & 73 mins]

Two more releases in this splendid series, with transfers judiciously balanced "between two extremes" by Mark Obert-Thorn.*

I have repeatedly suggested that the world would not be much a worse place if no recordings of these sonatas survived since Schnabel's. He does test my loyalty a little though at the beginning of the Hammerklavier, tearing into it at top speed and with enormous tension, betrayed by lack of control which can escape no-one; his fingers 'keep jumping the rail'. One critic said, not unfairly, that Schnabel gave you more of the music and less of the notes than anyone else!

Times do change, and of course the general standard of piano playing is enormously improved technically.I am not into comparative reviewing of standard works in the canon, but for a combination of head, heart, memory and finger control enjoy Barenboim's Appassionata in his recent DVD, totally unfazed by his vast audience at Buenos Aires, virtually faultless half way through a huge programme with 13 encores; not to be missed. It reminded me of his Beethoven cycle in London soon after the Queen Elizabeth Hall opened.

But, before dismissing Schnabel's 1930s recordings, remember that there was no editing possible then and that he was averse to multiple takes. And ponder how he soon settles down and, in later passages of equally extreme difficulty, his playing can be as immaculate as any rivals; certainly as any of his time. So think of it as a quasi-live performance and enjoy the sweep of its grand trajectory, and the rest of these well filled and immaculately presented historical CDs.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 109-111 - Spiritualism informed by musicology

Artur Schnabel

Naxos Historical 8.110763 (vol 9 of the complete Beethoven)


Mitsuko Uchida

details at Philips 475 6935 (with sound extracts on line)


Imagine comparing a native speaker with very assiduous, adept students who have learned a foreign language. That is the difference, in Beethoven, between Schnabel and modern pianists.


One is natural, the others studied. Listen, for example, to how unfussy Schnabel's Op.111 is, the first movement never bombastic, nor the second over-interpreted. As with native speakers, we understand that in Schnabel there can be moments of grammatical (=technical) error that we forgive as unimportant, though the well-known problem passages in these sonatas (such as the trio of Op.110) are cleaner than one might fear.


In the old days, performance was an enactment, something for the moment, even if the memory might be for a lifetime. Now, whether or not the digital age is responsible, we have become increasingly exhaustive as musicians and listeners, researching ever more scholarly editions, achieving ever more lifelike recordings, knowing ever more carefully the mind of the composer when he was writing.


It is not intrinsically inferior to be ‘studied'. Joseph Conrad, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest English novelists, was writing in his third language. But the devil in the detail. By complete immersion, authenticity results. It is an immensely more tortuous route to Olympus (appropriate designation for 109-111) that the modern artist takes, subsuming personality inside a perception of the composer's intentions. In Schiff's recent recital, I heard this sublimity in the very last movement, the finale to Op.111, a summation of everything that had come before. Likewise, Uchida, for me, attains this state of grace once, in the finale of Op.110.


Tovey memorably speaks of Op.110 as both the easiest of the last five technically, but musically almost the hardest challenge – unlike (especially) the Hammerklavier or Op.111, there is no sense that the music is trying to be esoteric or technically difficult. Op.110 is profundity masked by ingenuousness. Uchida's extreme, scrupulous respect for and attention to the music allow the clarity of Beethoven's thought in the fugue to shine forth.


Ironically, there does exist a recording of Op.109, charming in its innocence, made by Uchida when she was fourteen and a student in Vienna , which has occasionally been heard on Radio 3. Her grown-up Op.109 is polished, lyrical, complete, but in every sense more serious.


Uchida's new release (and no doubt the forthcoming Schiff on ECM) are strong recommendations, showing that Beethoven interpretation has again changed from the adamantine brilliance of Pollini, the peerless ambassador of modernistic virtues, and that now it aspires to a new spiritualism - Spiritualism informed by musicology. I am trying to reach the heart of this difference of approach – Schnabel is like a Socratic dialogue, dispensing wisdom almost by accident. Uchida or Schiff are more like Wittgenstein, the distillation of an immense amount of conscious pondering.


The potential greatness of a Schiff or Uchida interpretation, to me, resides in its ability to open a door on Beethoven's own world, its profundity and uniqueness, even its arcane twists and turns. As for Schnabel, he always does the opposite; he shows that something so difficult and unusual is nevertheless universal, available to all.


Ying Chang


(See also YC's review of Andras Schiff's Wigmore Hall performance of these sonatas concluding his Beethoven cycle.)

MDC at Royal Festival Hall (Tel: 020 7620 0198) has in their post-Christmas sale a special super-bargain offer of all Schnabel's Beethoven Sonatas in a black box; I don't know whose restoration version they are. (Editor)

  * Mark Obert-Thorn's transfer philsophy:- - - the problem of how to deal with the higher-than-average level of surface crackle inherent in HMV shellac has led previous transfer engineers down one of two paths. One way has been to use heavy computerized processing to keep the noise at a minimum. While this made for a relatively quiet result, many critics felt that the piano's tonal qualities had been sacrificed to an unacceptable degree. Another approach went to the opposite extreme, filtering minimally and even apparently boosting the upper mid-range frequencies in an attempt to add a percussive brilliance to the piano tone. Although this produced a clearer result than the first method, many listeners were put off by the relentless onslaught of surface noise that this approach to filtering and equalisation exacerbated.

For the current transfers, I have tried to strike a balance between these two positions. In order to start with the quietest available source material, multiple copies of British, French and American pressings have been assembled, and I have chosen the best sides from each. Computerised declicking (although not denoising) has been employed not only to remove clicks and pops, but also to reduce surface crackle to a minimum without harming the upper frequencies. My approach to filtering has been to stop at the point at which more than just surface hiss was being affected; and my equalisation has aimed for a warm, full piano tone which I believe is more representative of the original recordings. - -


© Peter Grahame Woolf