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Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Complete Piano Sonatas
Artur Schnabel
Review By Phil Gold
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  This box set me back all of $20 at HMV in Vancouver last summer. It's the best $20 I've ever spent. I don't guarantee you'll be able to find this set, released in 2006, since it seems to be the kind you find in special offer bins. The Document label, owned by Membran Music, also offers a 10-CD box of Astor Piazzolla. You can see their other offerings at www.membran.net.

So what did I get for my $20? A set of ten discs in hard sleeves with tracks and timings and dates of recordings. Nothing else. On the negative side, the recording is mono, thin, with the kind of surface noise unavoidable from recordings from the '30s. On the plus side, the sonatas are actually in numerical order (quite unusual) and they've thrown in a couple of bonus tracks — the G Minor Fantasy, Op 77 and the well known Bagatelle "Für Elise."

This first complete recorded cycle of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas is played by a man already in his fifties, born in what is now Poland but raised in Austria. Schnabel was accepted as a pupil by the great teacher Theodor Leschetizky at the age of nine. He later studied with Eusebius Mandyczewski, a pupil of Brahms, who thought highly of him.

In 1898 Schnabel moved to Berlin. He later taught at the Berlin State Academy. As a Jew, Schnabel could not safely stay in Germany under the Nazis, so he moved to England in 1933 and from there to America in 1939.

Schnabel's technique was prodigious as a young man, but had begun to deteriorate by the time these recordings were made. When you listen to these performances, it is clear that Schnabel had in his head a bold conception of how this music should be played, and he played it that way regardless of whether or not his fingers were up to the task. On the evidence of these performances, he would rather compromise on technical accuracy than on his view of what the composer intended.

Is that really a problem? For some listeners it is, as is the dated sound. But for me, the occasional wrong notes are irrelevant. What counts is the profound understanding of Beethoven that Schnabel and Schnabel alone offers. His phrasing in the slower movements (where his technique never fails him) is revelatory. It is as if he understands and articulates this music perfectly, but no subsequent pianist can play this same way because it would be seen to be copying Schnabel. In the faster movements we hear brilliant drawing of individual lines that make the music easy to understand. We also get startling hair-trigger reactions, sudden crescendos and powerful trills.

Schnabel's great intellect plumbs the depths of the later works to a profound degree. Yet those sonatas are not where he shines brightest. Those same works also inspire the best in other great interpreters, particularly Gilels, Pollini, Horzowski and, most especially, Solomon. Those great artists demonstrate infallible techniques throughout. The greatest joy in this set comes in the earlier, often underappreciated works. Where others, with the notable exception of Brendel, typically treat those works as more lighthearted and less consequential, Schnabel probes to find the true essence of each sonata, revealing depths of musicality and invention that predict the subtlety of the late masterpieces.

Sound quality compares quite favorably with the LP versions on Seraphim and HMV Treasury. You may enjoy these discs best in the car, where road noise masks the sonic imperfections. Even on my domestic rig, my ears adjust very quickly and I enjoy the music for extended periods without fatigue, just as I do with the Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five/Hot Seven recordings from a few years earlier. In both cases the sound is good for its day; the recording engineers were striving to capture those sessions for posterity.

No matter how many pianists you have heard in these sonatas, no serious Beethoven collection is complete without this Schnabel cycle. It is simply essential listening.


Classical Editor's Note: I heartily concur with Phil's assessment of this landmark set. It is unquestionably among a small handful of the most important documents in the history of recorded music! — Wayne Donnelly






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