Monday, February 7, 2011

2/7 Artur Schnabel's Beethoven Hunt

Artur Schnabel:
For Tempo Robbery
One Beethoven pianist who eluded me for awhile is Artur Schnabel. Schnabel was a friend to both Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg, and even had a chamber group with Paul Hindemith. His own compositions were fairly atonal. However he was the first pianist to record all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas (in 1935)  - he recorded most of the bagatelles and variations as well. After moving to Vienna at age 2, he lived in Berlin, then the United States and finally died in Switzerland in 1951.

I resisted his Beethoven piano cycle at first because the sound quality of the recordings I first heard were frankly awful - mono and with Niagara Falls in the background...or it may have been the piano that was in the background. Additionally I heard he made mistakes in these recordings and I thought it would be a waste of time to hear "wrong" versions. After a year of listening to "correct" versions, a friend recommended the Schnabel again and I decided to give them another go. Wow - was I surprised! My past recollection was of a very dusty interpretation of no great distinction - listening to it now it sounds exciting, practically reckless! And most importantly, full of life. I did notice some rough phrasing, especially in some of the denser runs where Schnabel tends to "mush" them together in a kind of tonal smear - but I've really grown to love this unique facet. And despite that these recordings were 75 years old, I came across a restoration which removed pretty much all the hiss and so I could actually hear the music. The version I'm speaking of is the set out on the EMI label - on Amazon it's been kind of criticized for being "flat" or "overly-restored" but I compared it with a couple other sets (Pearl and Historical) and those are just too hissy, sorry. The hiss on those is probably louder than most string sections on a piano concerto recording...

If the EMI set is out of your budget however (I wonder of I should start "monetizing" this blog one of these days with all these recommendations) you can actually download the Schnabel set for free from - but these are transfers from 78 rpm records to expect a little hiss (sometimes). Nonetheless purists stand by them and these are very listenable and enjoyable.

Here's a couple examples:

Sonata No 16 in G major, Op 31 Nr 1 
Beethoven. Piano Sonata # 16 in G, Op. 31, No. 1. In three movements: Allegro vivace, Adagio grazioso, Rondo (Allegretto).

Sonata No 18 in G major, Op 31 Nr 3 "The Hunt"
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat, Op. 31 No. 3. In four movements: Allegro, Scherzo (Allegretto vivace), Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso), Presto con fuoco.

I don't think the Schnabel set would make a "perfect" representation of Beethoven's piano sonatas but they are very deep and very human.  Beethoven would have given them 2 thumbs up.

Artur Schnabel at

Schnabel's book

No comments:

Post a Comment