Finger Food

Yefim Bronfman’s piano recital two weeks ago at the Music Center was everything such an event needs to be: fluff and substance, novelty and familiarity carefully compounded, played with awesome technique and admirable wisdom. As piano recitals go, it lacked the giddy adventure of Vicki Ray‘s Piano Spheres performance last month, but that whole remarkable series is a set of one-of-a-kind events, on a rarefied plateau where nary a note of Rachmaninoff can intrude. Seven Rachmaninoff Preludes on Bronfman’s program may have been one or two too many -- although they didn‘t, at least, include the wretched item in C-sharp minor -- but the set had its gooey charms. Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, music composed to be greeted with ooohs and aaahs, did so once again. Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s Dichotomie, which Gloria Cheng introduced two years ago, again generated its quotient of airy delight, nicely spangled with echoes of Ravel’s side-slipping harmonies along the way. The final encore, Chopin‘s obligatory ”Revolutionary“ Etude, sent the crowd home happy if unsurprised.

Beethoven’s D-major Sonata (Opus 10 No. 3) was the program‘s earliest work and, in many ways, the most daring. Three of its movements are reasonably predictable: the young (28) Beethoven roistering along the keyboard, pulling his by-then-famous lively rhythmic tricks and harmonic jolts. By 1798 he had found his place in Vienna’s musical society; his sonatas and chamber pieces were grabbed by eager publishers and were on everybody‘s best-sellers lists. Still, something takes place in this sonata -- most of all in its slow movement -- that sounds a new note in Beethoven’s musical language. The music still counts as ”early“ Beethoven, but this slow movement makes it later than you‘d think.

The movement is in D minor, which was for Beethoven a key of storms and sorrows. In 1795 he had played Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto (K. 466) at a concert arranged by Mozart‘s widow, and had been stirred by the music to create a long and complex cadenza, which has survived. (Mitsuko Uchida plays it on her Philips recording of the concerto.) My guess is that Mozart’s edgy, fist-shaking music taught Beethoven something about the expressive power of D minor. The slow movement of this sonata -- and the slow movement of the first of the Opus 18 string quartets that followed a couple of years later, the Piano Sonata that bears the subtitle ”Tempest“ and then, finally, the Ninth Symphony, all in D minor -- shares something of this stark, tragic sense, defiant at times but mournfully accepting at other times.

The slow movement of Opus 10 No. 3 starts off dank and chill; then there are outcries. A new tune seems more settled at first; it rides comfortably over arpeggios in the left hand. But the quietude doesn‘t last; the right hand moves up the scale in small fragments until, at the top, it shatters and screams for help in all but words. (That’s one of Beethoven‘s D-minor tricks, a lapsing into nonverbal recitative; it happens in the ”Tempest“ Sonata and, of course, in the Ninth.) The music grows darker; the opening chill returns, this time over a dense underbrush of piano figuration; a final sigh, and it ends. Every scholar measures Beethoven’s trajectory as a composer by certain landmarks: the ”Eroica,“ the last string quartets, the Ninth. This movement, I submit, belongs on that list. Certainly Bronfman‘s playing of the music seemed moved by that awareness.

The world does not languish for lack of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on disc. Alfred Brendel alone has produced three complete sets; my latest Schwann lists over a dozen boxed sets of all 32 sonatas, and then goes on to 14 columns of teensy print listing single discs. Despite this impractical glut, the great news is that the first-ever set of the complete Beethoven sonatas, made by Artur Schnabel in London in the early 1930s, is being reissued on low-cost CDs on Naxos. Two discs are out so far. The rich mellowness of Schnabel‘s beloved Bechstein, amazing even back in the days of the scratchy 78s, is amazing once again thanks to the miraculous audio restoration of Mark Obert-Thorn. At times like this, the self-destructive side of the record industry -- drowning in its own glut -- suddenly doesn’t matter.

Schnabel was what used to be called a ”musician‘s musician“; there are passing moments on these recordings when fingers weaken and musical lines go momentarily dim -- especially in the murderous final fugue of the ”Hammerklavier“ Sonata and in the ”Diabelli“ Variations, which neither you nor I could play any better. Schnabel used to define his artistic preferences as a taste for music ”that was better than it could be performed“: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert (whose sonatas he rescued from near oblivion), no Hungarian Rhapsodies, no Rachmaninoff. Even on this first disc, which contains the three sonatas of the very early Opus 2, Schnabel’s mastery is clear: the furious final movement of Opus 2 No. 1, the slow movement of Opus 2 No. 3 with its astounding Schubertian foreshadowings.

Schnabel‘s greatness was his ability to re-create music whole: not a good tune floating atop less-important left-hand figuration, but a caring for every line of the most complicated music. His playing of the aforementioned slow movement of Opus 10 No. 3, which will probably turn up on the third disc of the new Naxos series, is one of those indescribable performances that simply holds you motionless for something like an eternity. (Schnabel’s ”eternity,“ by the way, times out at 11‘46”. Compare that to Brendel’s 7‘31“ in his 1973 set and 10’28” in 1995 to realize how Beethoven‘s music remains a living, changing organism in the ears of performers and listeners alike.)

I am old enough to have seen Schnabel perform -- including once from a stage seat in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, close enough to note that the twinkle in the cheeky modulations in a Schubert sonata were exactly mirrored in the twinkle on his own countenance. Hearing him perform Beethoven -- on these new CDs, or on my treasured LPs in the EMI box that also contains Eric Blom‘s marvelous program from 1932 that accompanied the original 78s and which Naxos should seriously consider reprinting -- I hear a depth in the music’s textures that no other pianist in my experience has been able to match. For their content of wisdom mingled with moments of reckless energy, I will also hold on to my Brendels (all three sets); for clarity and elegant balance, I will retain Richard Goode‘s splendid Nonesuch versions. But the re-emergence of Schnabel casts a shadow over even those deserving ventures. I envy the generations of musicians and music lovers hearing his treasurable artistry for the first time.