Beethoven probably would have agreed that his 32 piano sonatas deserved to be called "the New Testament of keyboard music."
The titan of Bonn knew his own worth; and while he knew that Bach's "Forty-Eight" deserved to be classed with the Old Testament in its importance to keyboard players, he was confident that his own work for solo keyboard constituted an even greater dispensation.
Although almost every great pianist since Liszt has included several Beethoven sonatas in his repertory, the man most responsible for their current pre-eminence was the Austrian Artur Schnabel (1882-1951). Schnabel's seasonal cycles of all 32 sonatas -- first in Berlin in the 1920s and later in London and New York in the 1930s -- were not the first. But he was the first pianist who actually carried all of these pieces in his active repertory and was the first to record them.
That recording, made between 1932 and 1935 for what is now EMI Classics, is still available and remains (in this writer's opinion) in a class of its own. You can buy it as a mid-priced EMI set, or you can pay twice the price for the performances on the Pearl label.
Pay more and get more. Pearl does not try to eliminate the prominent hiss from the original 78s. But along with the hiss, you get an accurate image of how Schnabel actually sounded -- his incredibly varied and beautiful tone, astonishingly expressive trills and subtle pedaling technique.
Fischer and followers
Schnabel remains the biggest influence upon Beethoven interpretation, but the Swiss Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) does not lag far behind. Fischer did not play all of the sonatas, but his performances, lectures and master classes powerfully influenced such younger contemporaries as Claudio Arrau; several important figures in the post-World War II-generation, such as Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim; and even younger pianists such as Andras Schiff and Peter Serkin. Fischer was not a great pianist in the usual sense. He never possessed the reliable technique of a Backhaus or Gieseking. And while Schnabel could be sloppy, he never left a listener in doubt, as Fischer often did, about his ability to play most of the notes.
But the Swiss pianist's romantic temperament and beautiful tone were undeniably seductive -- never more so than in his first and best recordings of the Sonatas Nos. 8, 23 and 31, which were made before World War II and are collected along with his lovely performance of Handel's Chaconne on the Appian label (APR 5502).
Fischer's most prominent disciple, Alfred Brendel, is now perhaps the world's best-known Beethoven player. He is recording the 32 sonatas for the third time, and his latest album (Philips 446 093-2) couples Sonata No. 29 ("Hammerklavier") with Sonata No. 26 ("Les Adieux"). Like Fischer, Brendel is not a virtuoso, but he is almost invariably a very interesting musician. The recorded sound on this disc is much better than that on Brendel's famous second recorded cycle from the mid-'70s, and the performances are more persuasive. The "Hammerklavier" is less didactic and better sustained over its 45-minute length, and "Les Adieux" supplies warmth and charm without the aggressiveness of 20 years ago.
Another recorded cycle-in-progress belongs to Stephen Kovacevich, and his third and most recent volume contains the three sonatas of Opus 31 (EMI Classics 5 55226). Kovacevich is obviously striving for the heroic quality achieved breathtakingly by the likes of Maurizio Pollini, but he sometimes sounds merely percussive and petulant. This isn't bad Beethoven; it's just that much better is available.
Some is available quite cheaply -- as it is on a budget-priced London "Double Decker" by the pianist Friedrich Gulda that includes Sonatas Nos. 14, 15, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 32 (London 443 012). Gulda, now active chiefly as a jazz player, made these recordings in the late 1950s. They are direct, brilliant readings that will remind some listeners of the late Rudolf Serkin's -- although Gulda possesses neither Serkin's tungsten-and-steel touch nor scales his monumental heights.
FTC Someone who did scale such heights was the late Annie Fischer (1914-1995). This great Hungarian pianist played with clarity, intelligence, spontaneity, temperament and force. She never became as famous as she deserved to be, because her bad nerves occasionally made her as erratic as she could be exciting.
Although she was never a Beethoven specialist in the Schnabel or Brendel sense, she did give two complete cycles in Budapest in the 1976-1977 concert season. Those concerts were taped, and the Hungaroton label is slowly putting together a complete Fischer Beethoven cycle. The just-released Volume I (HCD 31626) contains Sonatas Nos. 6, 12, 13 and 31, and they make for fascinating listening.
In details such as the darkest moments of the adagio in No. 31 and the infusion of grace that enters it at the advent of the inverted fugue subject in the final movement, the Hungarian can convince us that she was privy to the composer's most intimate thoughts.
Fischer's profound, deeply felt performance is the kind of reading that Awadagin Pratt was probably trying to deliver on a disc that also includes Sonatas Nos. 7, 9 and 30 (EMI Classics 5 55290). But the young pianist's performance sounds the way a pretentious essay by an undergraduate reads. A few interesting insights simply do not compensate for a poor sense of rhythm, a technique whose unreliability is apparent behind the veneer of tape-splicing and a failure to present a coherent view of the sonata. The other sonatas on the disc fare no better.
Pub Date: 5/26/96