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Schnabel's Beethoven

We all know how to listen to historical recordings – with indulgence to the veil of flaws in front of the music, rather as if we were visiting some famous ruins, the Parthenon, say, or the Roman Forum. Wrong notes? We can hardly get the deceased artist to return and play the right ones. Tape hiss? Nothing to be done, though we may debate learnedly the best way of making the transfer.

And like the Colossus of Rhodes , some famous monuments simply don't exist at all; the Gilels Beethoven Op 111; never recorded for the DG set because of his untimely death.


Reading through the booklets for the Naxos Schnabel Beethoven CD re-issues, one sees Schnabel was reluctant to be recorded.

This is something one reads frequently in the documentation for historical recordings, that such-and-such an artist hated, shunned or was made nervous by the microphone, so what we hear on the CD is not what they sounded like live, at their best. This is another element contributing to the mystique of the Golden Age and of the vanished – ‘you will never hear the like of this again, not even in the recording that survives' - but it rests on a simple psychological truth.


In an era where editing was minimal or impossible, the recording artist was under a double pressure, the self-consciousness of being heard, even if only by a microphone, and the knowledge that mistakes were likely to be preserved for posterity. An artist or producer might have had to choose between several different versions, each with their errors or infelicities. Likewise, Richter (and with Richter and Gilels we speak of artists who lived well into the modern era) speaks of his heart sinking when commercial recordings of his concerts landing on his desk, recordings he usually never knew were being made.


Today, the problem is the opposite, the modern recording artist has the luxury of a near-infinite number of takes; the problem is therefore to achieve the spontaneity in the studio that live performance gives. Few artists today play as cleanly today as, with the benefit of editing, they do on record.


It is not necessarily easy to put into words why Schnabel is still regarded by many as the greatest Beethoven interpreter of all time, though one has only to listen to a few seconds to be absolutely convinced of his greatness. Schnabel's Beethoven is as natural as breathing, one cannot imagine the phrasing more perfectly shaped, the music is held back or sent forward without in the least seeming mannered or contrived; it has an organic freedom that almost all of today's interpreters struggle to find.


In fact, there are significantly fewer wrong notes on these discs than one might fear. Op78, which we know was a work highly regarded by Beethoven, but whose compactness can make it inaccessible, is a particular revelation. One cannot strive to imitate Schnabel – that is another feature of the intangible marvel of his playing, but no-one will fail to learn from it. These CDs are not only essential listening; the depth and many facets of the interpretation repay repetition.


Ying Chang