Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas
In Alfred Brendel's recent collection of essays Music Sounded Out (Robson: 1991), there is an absorbing conversation entitled ''On Schnabel and Interpretation'' between Brendel and the late Konrad Wolff, author of The Teaching of Artur Schnabel (London: 1972). Brendel neither knew Schnabel nor heard him play in the concert hall. Like most people nowadays, he came to Schnabel's playing through gramophone recordings, an experience that seems to have left him a passionate but critical admirer, and no acolyte. Wolff himself argues that the best reproduction of Schnabel's actual sound comes, not in studio recordings, but in 'unofficial' ones. (Unfortunately, he doesn't state which, some it has to be said, are an embarrassment, particularly those made in the United States in the mid-1940s.) At the same time, both Wolffand Brendel seem to be of the opinion that many of Schnabel's studio recordings are hyper-active, with Wolff once more tossing into the embers that old chestnut about artists rushing to fit the music on to short 78rpm sides. In fact, as Brendel concedes, Schnabel was almost idealogically committed to extreme tempos; something you might say Beethoven's music thrives on, always provided the interpreter can bring it off.
By and large Schnabel did. There are some famous gabbles L this sonata cycle, notably at the start of the Hammerklavier, with him going for broke and the metronome marking. In fact, Schnabel also held that ''It is a mistake to imagine that all notes should be played with equal intensity or even be clearly audible. In order to clarify the music it is often necessary to make certain notes obscure.'' As Brendel wrily observes, this admirable insight is one which it is virtually impossible to get past the average record producer nowadays. If it is true, as some contemporary witnesses aver, that Schnabel was a flawless wizard in the period pre-1930, there is still plenty of wizardry left in these post- 1930 Beethoven recordings. As SP noted when these recordings first turned up on LP in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century between 1963-4, they are virtuoso readings that demonstrate ''a blazing intensity of interpretative vision as well as a breathtaking manner of execution''. Even when a dazzlingly articulate reading like that of the Waldstein is home and dry and safely stowed, the abiding impression in its aftermath is one of Schnabel's (and Beethoven's) astonishing physical and imaginative daring. And if this suggests recklessness well, in many other instances the facts are quite other, for Schnabel has a great sense of decorum. He can, in many of the smaller sonatas and some of the late ones, be impeccably mannered, stylish and urbane. Equally he can (within the parameters of the finishedi work of art) be devlish or coarse. ''Don't neglect the music's fierce plebeian voice,'' enjoins the aristocratic Cortot, writing about the Scherzo of Op. 110: which is hardly something Schnabel needed to be told.
At the other extreme, Schnabel is indubitably the master of the genuinely slow slow movement. Forget the story about his playing of the opening chord of the slow movement of Beethoven's C minor Concerto and Schoenberg's despairing cry ''I can't count any longer!''; and concentrate instead on the way, from the earliest sonatas to the final movement of Op. 111, that Schnabel is able to reconcile a calm and concentrated slowness with a breathing pulse and stirring inner life that is beyond the wit of most latterday imitators. No one now distils these imaginative essences quite as Schnabel did. And though it is dangerous to suggest such a thing in the present climate of 'authentic performance', such playing doesn't date.
Recorded sound does date, though, and LP after conferring continuity on the performances came to compound the problems (in EMI's early 1980s reissue—10/80, 1, 4 and 9/81) with added rustles, crackles and pops of its own. In this respect, CD is a godsend. There is nothing that can be done about the occasional patch of wow or discoloration but, in general, the old recordings come up very freshly indeed.
As the originating company, you would imagine that EMI held all the trump cards, but Nuova Era have obviously had access to some first-rate source material with only the occasional blip or blemish that isn't there on the EMI. As to the question of the transfers to CD, here it is a strange tale of swings and roundabouts. In Op. 3 No. 3 the Nuova Era issue sounds brighter and less boxy—and closer to the quality of the older EMI on LP—than the EMI. At other times, the EMI sound is marginally brighter and cleaner though this can be counter-productive when there are flaws in the master to be accentuated, as there are at the end of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata or at 3'40'' ff. in the final movement of Op. 111. I thought the EMI sound marginally weightier, as well as being very clear, in the Hammerklavier Sonata, and they have some wonderfully 'invisible' elisions between 78rpm sides that Nuova Era don't always set quite such store by. But this is all pretty marginal in the larger context of the huge benefit of CD itself, sensibly handled. In fact, since neither set comes with any kind of programme annotation on the music itself I would be inclined to be guided by price. Shop around and vote with your wallet. Meanwhile, those in search of a sonata cycle in more modern sound should consider the recently reissued mid- to budget-price nine-disc DG cycle ((CD) 429 306-2GX9 301/9991) by Schnabel's nominated heir, Wilhelm Kempff.'