BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73 "Emperor." 15
Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E-flat, op. 35 "Eroica."
Artur Schnabel (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Classica d' Oro CDO 3040 MONO TT: 59:59.
Historical. The "Emperor" comes from an EMI set of the complete concerti
with Sargent in 1932, the Variations from 1938. The latter turn up from time
to time on different labels, with varying transfer quality. However, while
the first four piano concerti continue to appear on several labels, I've had
the devil's own time finding Schnabel's "Emperor." In fact, I heard
it here first. Consider that I collected my first Schnabel Beethoven concerto
(appropriately enough, the first) in 1963 on EMI's "Great Recordings of
the Century" series. Classica d' Oro has labeled this album "Complete
Beethoven Piano Concertos, Vol. 3." I'm still shocked that EMI (now Warners)
hasn't released much of the GRotC on CD, not merely Schnabel. I have no idea
about who actually owns the rights to these recordings, since so many different
labels have released them.
Schnabel introduced me to Beethoven's piano sonatas beyond the "Moonlight," "Pathétique," and "Appassionata," kindling
a life-long enthusiasm. I still think his First Piano Concerto with Sargent
one of the finest I've heard. Sargent gets little respect as a conductor. People
seem to regard him as a guy in a great suit waving a baton. However, contemporary
evidence and opinion testify to his musicality and technique. He may not have
been the Three British Bees (Beecham, Barbirolli, and Boult), but he's not
Pringle's Chips, either. He consistently brings impulse, precision, and sensitivity
to these performances. Schnabel isn't the only reason to admire these recordings.
Schnabel is Schnabel -- a musician of great subtlety and electricity. His Beethoven
has "edges," sacrificing beauty of tone to power. In the concerto's
slow movement, he produces a unique lyricism -- one not aiming to melt your
heart, but to keep you in suspense until the crash of the finale. His notorious
clams really are at a minimum until the finale, where he drops a lot of notes
and smears runs. I don't care.
The theme of the Variations had appeared a year later as the main idea in the
finale of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, hence the nickname of the "Eroica" Variations,
even though this came first. You can also find a version of it in the composer's
Creatures of Prometheus ballet (1801). While not as jaw-dropping as the Diabelli
Variations, it still shows the composer as a master of the variation form.
My favorite of the fifteen, number 15, tells us that what we've listened to
is not the usual aria variée, but a meditation on simple beginnings.
Schnabel certainly throws nothing away (if you discount his finger-fumbles).
Indeed, his virtues shine -- an invitation to explore the mind of a great composer.
The word for this entire performance is "exploratory." You feel as
if you make discoveries at the same time as the pianist.
The sound, horrible by today's standards even for "historical recordings," is
worse in the concerto than in the variations. Not only do you get a constant
hiss, but in an effort to cover that up, the engineers seem to have laid a
heavy bass. At least, in the variations you endure merely the constant hiss.
The question remains that with all the versions of the "Emperor" out
there, whether you really need this one. As a Schnabel fan, I'd say yes for
other fans, not really for others, although his slow movement I regard as one
of the great ones. However, even if a non-fan and you don't have his "Eroica" Variations,
you miss something special.
S.G.S. (February 2022)