BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas (complete) – Artur Schnabel, piano – Pristine Classical [available in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] PAKM 037-043, 045-046, 048 : 67:23 + 55:53 + 73:34 + 61:57 + 59:16 + 59:17 + 66:27 + 56:09 + 60:59 + 68:43:
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas: Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3; Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2; Sonata No. 22, Op. 54 – Artur Schnabel, piano – St Laurent Studio [www.78experience.com] YSL 78-061:
Recording for this cycle began during the Depression of the 1930s. HMV initiated “Beethoven Society Recordings” on a subscription basis in advance of recording, and, at a time when Beethoven’s sonatas for piano were not as popular as a cycle as nowadays, the marketing was quite a success. Indeed, the records in one form or another have remained in the catalogue for nearly 80 years. In addition to the sonatas, a number of shorter and longer pieces were also recorded, including the Diabelli Variations, and by the time the project was completed in 1935, it amounted to fifteen volumes and a total of more than 200 sides of shellac. The total cost of a hundred 78s was beyond most people’s pockets in those days; whichever transfers are chosen by today’s collectors are a real bargain in comparison to what one’s parents or grandparents had to pay.
Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was fifty years old by the time he came to setting down these recordings. At nine years old he became a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky; he knew Brahms and heard him play. In addition to performing a wide repertoire of music for piano, he involved himself in a great deal of chamber music, joining celebrated musicians like Huberman, Piatigorsky, Szigeti and Fournier, fortunately for us setting down on disc performances which, as with the sonatas, have remained available for many years.
What impresses so much about Schnabel’s Beethoven is the intellect and architecture behind each performance. Schnabel’s vision also combines spontaneity with his years of experience, and perhaps the middle-aged pianist was not quite as able as his younger self to cope technically with some of his ideas about how the music should be played. Carping about some of the playing will include some movements performed simply unlike most would do them today – the shock of the old may well make some listeners rethink about Beethoven. In addition, Schnabel’s playing in fast movements is, by today’s standards with digital editing easier than making a cup of tea, affected by extra notes. For some listeners this is all too much, and the Hammerklavier Sonatas, for example, will be ruled out of court. For others, the intellect behind the reading will counterbalance the inaccuracies and is easily forgiven. On the other hand, few pianists have brought out the music of the slow movements with such uncommonly fine touch, speaking clearly through those elderly recordings. Before the War, Schnabel’s instrument of choice for the sonatas was by Bechstein, a disappointment for fans of Steinway, and listeners must expect to acclimatise to the colour of that instrument.
Work on the first LP releases was done by RCA in the 1950s, polished up by EMI in the 1970s, and finally scrubbed up for CD release twenty years ago. Not including the notorious clipped note in the CD release, the EMI CD release is regarded by some as too filtered with noise reduction involving deterioration in piano tone. Despite this, Schnabel’s artistry is undiminished, but the quest for ever superior transfers has resulted in a wide choice for potential buyers. Two CDs’ worth were remastered for EMI’s GROC series – I thought these gave more body to the instrument than the somewhat etiolated earlier EMI release did. Seth Winner’s transfers for Pearl still sound very fine; there is more shellac noise, but there is also more body to the piano sound and a far clearer and focused room ambience. Dante’s Schnabel edition was also well-transferred, possibly from EMI LPs, but it lacks the immediacy of the Pearl. A reasonable and cheap edition by Membran has a similar quality. More recent transfers include Mark Obert-Thorn’s fine edition for Naxos Historical, which achieves a fine balance between piano tone and surface noise, and faithful to the original releases. I have not been able to audition a few other transfers, an extremely cheap download option from Amazon, a CD set from Musical Concepts, and sets no longer available, apart from Nuova Era (which is heavily filtered), and a Japanese release from EMI/Shinseido which from listening to a few tracks seems to me to be comparable to Seth Winner’s Pearl set. Until now, these alone have been enough to provoke hot-tempered discourse on the more toxic internet forum, with strong views about the various transfer engineers’ ethos behind the mastering.
Pristine Classical’s Schnabel cycle is now complete, and what is particularly interesting about this release is the use of computer software to minimise the wow and flutter inherent in these old recordings. Interventionist remastering will be anathema to some, but Andrew Rose’s careful use of new German software from Celemony called Capstan can have astonishing results. Slow movements with sustained notes in particular benefit enormously from this use. Coupled with equalisation to produce results as could be imagined were intended in the studio, the end product in general could be mistaken easily for recordings made many years later. Over the whole cycle there is, as one might expect, some variation in reducing the effects shellac noise, and in coping with and minimising other deficiencies in source material such as blasting. In addition, various techniques in noise reduction have left Schnabel’s Bechstein with as wide a tonal spectrum as could be hoped for. I did audition some volumes via the 24 bit FLAC files through a Musical Fidelity CliC but found in this case the 16 bit very satisfactory.
Another new edition is under way at the moment from the “78 Experience”, a recently established label dealing in the main with restoring shellac releases. Yves St. Laurent has the philosophy that minimal intervention produces the finest results, and he transfers using no filtering and noise reduction whatsoever, apart from manual excision of the most intrusive of pressing faults. Thus far just a first volume has been released, and judging from this, the edition won’t be in the works’ chronological order, but rather a balanced recital per volume.
St Laurent’s lack of filtering results in as full-bodied a piano tone as possible with an immediacy which will appeal to many. In addition, the part of the recording which is the first to vanish with any application of noise reduction is the ambience of the recording location, and this remains intact in this volume. I did find that the equipment used for playing this first volume came into the equation for dealing with the elephant in the room here. While the sound of the piano on the shellac disc is entirely intact, so is the sound of the shellac. Wide-range or audiophile equipment will reproduce this with startling fidelity and I found my older system with Audiolab amplifier and my less-wide-range Linn Keilidhs coped better than my main system whose amplifier and speakers entertain the local bat population. For those who want to listen to the equivalent of the original 78, and whose ears can filter out the surface crackle, these releases will be very welcome indeed. It certainly gave me much listening pleasure.
For one reason or another Schnabel’s Beethoven interested me rather later in life than it ought to have, which is to say I did not imprint on these recordings. Of those I have heard, Schnabel’s and Gulda’s (either the early 1950s cycle on Orfeo, or the later stereo on Amadeo/Brilliant/Decca) are the ones which provoked the most thought. Two brilliant minds digging far below the surface of the notes give an enormous amount of satisfaction.
For those who really do need top quality recording for enjoyment of music, there’s a new release on SACD of all of the sonatas by Peter Takacs, single SACDs by Michael Korstick on Oehms, an ongoing series by Mari Kodama on PentaTone and a forthcoming cycle by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos which may become available on SACD or 24/96 download.
That said, it is Schnabel, with that depth of vision and those idiosyncrasies, who remains, after all these years, essential listening. Whichever of the many transfers is picked will depend on the listener’s taste – these days we are certainly spoiled for choice. Both Pristine Classical and the 78 Experience offer samples on their websites – both sites are well worth a visit!
Pristine Classical’s Contents:
Volume 1 PAKM 037 Sonatas 1 – 3
Volume 2 PAKM 038 Sonatas 4 – 6
Volume 3 PAKM 039 Sonatas 7 – 10
Volume 4 PAKM 040 Sonatas 11 – 13
Volume 5 PAKM 041 Sonatas 14 – 16
Volume 6 PAKM 042 Sonatas 17 – 20
Volume 7 PAKM 043 Sonatas 21 – 24
Volume 8 PAKM 045 Sonatas 25 – 28
Volume 9 PAKM 046 Sonatas 29 – 30
Volume 10 PAKM 048 Sonatas 31 – 32
Mid-century performances, Eduard Erdmann, piano