Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Hammerklavier Sonata - Schnabel

What does one say about a work of art such as this? Something that feels forged, an analogue of Achilles' Shield, an miniature epic sweeping you away for a short while before depositing you in a grassy field to rest, where a quartet of satyrs plays late Haydn just to bring you back to earth?

My first encounter with this work was through the recording I'm listening to right now - the 1935 recording of Op. 106 by the legendary Artur Schnabel. (The Naxos Music Libary yields its riches so willingly - it almost seems wrong)

What does one say about this recording? The breathtaking speed and stunning virtuosity? The complete disregard for Beethoven's metronome markings?

Schnabel was the first to record the complete cycle of Sonatas, for HMV, to be sold by subscription to the Beethoven Sonata Society. I wonder what people must have thought, the day the latest Schnabel seventy-eight arrived on their front porch, fresh off the press.

You can see the lucky family gathering around the phonograph table, hurriedly tearing the brown paper open to discover which sonata they were to be graced with this evening - the Hammerklavier! Kids, finish your stew because we're in for a long night!

And what a night it would have been. Yes, Schnabel misses notes, but never has missing a few notes mattered less - it's thrilling nonetheless.

If however, you need technical perfection with your piano, I would suggest Maurizio Pollini's fine recording on Deutsche Grammophon, which is the recording I own. Pollini is often accused of an overly cerebral style, but if like cerebral, as I do, this shouldn't be a problem.

Beyond his stunning technique, and despite the reputation, there's a delicacy and sophistication to his playing of the Hammerklavier which complements the breathtaking Schnabel very well.

I would recommend listening to both, over and over again. Make a day, or perhaps a week of it.


Gawain said...

well, thats it, i guess i have to get a naxos subscription, then. i think le voir dit has to advance to my favorite blogs now.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Thank you - a rare honour indeed.

Mr. Waggish said...

I, er, admit that Schnabel has some technical problems with the fast movements of this one, more than with any other. It is remarkable, then, that the structural integrity survives, and I take that as a great compliment to Schnabel's intelligence and understanding of the music. And I can hear it in so many versions since. (One notable exception is Ernst Levy's, which reimagines the whole piece.)

Pollini is good on the fast movements but bores me on the 3rd...Richter and Gilels handle it the best, for me.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I haven't heard the Richter (I know, I know...)

And I hope you didn't read my mentioning his missed notes as a criticism - I do not believe his cycle of the sonatas has yet been matched.

nicholas said...

For me the schnabel recording still reigns. i'm working on the fugue now, and i'm taking it at schnabel's tempo. i have only learnt half of it,and indeed, its really breathtaking and exciting. i miss just as many notes as schnabel (mind you i am only 15 so don't expect much).

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I am twice 15 and miss 4 times as many notes in the fugue, so I would say you;re doing pretty well!