P1363. ARTUR SCHNABEL: 'Hammerklavier' Sonata #29 in B-flat, Op. 106; Seven Bagatelles (both Beethoven), recorded 1935 & 1938. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-1052. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“In its sheer scale, density of thought and technical requirements, the ‘Hammerklavier’ presents a more severe test of a pianist's capabilities than any other of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. The trio of sonatas that followed it - Op 109, 110 and 111 - may be more elusive and require a very special musical eloquence to illuminate all their facets, but Op 106, composed in 1817 and 1818, tests every aspect of a pianist's art, almost to the point of destruction.
If the last three sonatas are about reflection and the different kinds of poetic resolution a composer can achieve, this work deals unashamedly in confrontation, generating tensions that can't be resolved in any other way than in the gigantic explosion of the final fugue, whose deliberately clashing sonorities and raw-edged piano sound create a music that it is impossible to prettify. Yet the great slow movement, with its arching melodic lines and bewitching harmonic shifts, demands a different kind of authority altogether; and it's the fusion of these two worlds in the sonata that is unique even in late Beethoven.
The work has inevitably tempted almost all the significant pianists of the last 100 years, yet even some of the greatest fail to bring it off triumphantly; Artur Schnabel, for instance, whose reputation rests, in large part, upon his recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, is not at his most convincing in the ‘Hammerklavier’, where the sheer difficulties of the piano writing seem to destroy his poise.
Of all the more or less ‘historic’ versions, the one by Solomon recorded in 1956, comes closest to the ideal, centered upon the most moving account of the slow movement yet put on disc, and with sound that has come up miraculously well in its CD transfer.
I would be more than happy to live with that version to the exclusion of all others, but there are a number of more modern versions that match its profoundity and have a marginally better piano sound, with a list of contenders that includes many of the supreme keyboard artists of our time - Svitatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Alfred Brendel, Maruzio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Arrau and Richard Goode.”
- GRAMOPHONE, 21 Jan., 2000
“The more I hear of Schnabel's Beethoven, the less I desire to hear other pianists in this literature. I know that this is a narrow-minded attitude, but I have never heard any other pianist who could approach this kind of vital and profound music-making. Much has been said about Schnabel's supremacy in the late Sonatas, but his mastery of these early works is also supreme. He brings to these works a sparkle and restless vitality in the fast movements that makes the music come alive as no one else can. And he has the courage to respect the extreme slow tempi of the slow movements. The Rondo a capricio ‘Rage over a Lost Penny’ is breathtaking in its drive, yet all the charm and wit of the piece is there. Once you hear Schnabel, no one else will do."
- Ralph J. Steinberg
“Schnabel was known for championing the then-neglected sonatas of Schubert and, even more so, Beethoven, including his more challenging late works. Schnabel did much to popularize Beethoven's piano music, making the first complete recording of the sonatas, completing the set for the British label HMV in 1935. This set of recordings has never been out of print, and is considered by many to be the touchstone of Beethoven sonata interpretations, though shortcomings in finger technique mar many performances of fast movements. (Sergei Rachmaninoff is supposed to have referred to him as ‘the great adagio pianist’). It has been said that he suffered greatly from nerves when recording; in a more private setting, his technique was impeccable. Claudio Arrau has said that Schnabel's live performances during the 1920s were technically ‘flawless’. He also recorded all the Beethoven piano concerti.”
[Regarding] “the agony of recording, Artur Schnabel disliked the idea and the reality was even worse when he began to sit before a microphone to document all of Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. A painful listening experience that lasts unto this day. As an example of how poor [E.M.I.] restoration can affect perception of a performance we find a conversation with the pianist Murray Perahia focusing on the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata (Op.106)’s slow movement. In all likelihood, the result of heavy filtering”
- Allan Evans
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011