BEETHOVEN:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37.  Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58.  Rondo in C, Op. 51, No. 1
Artur Schnabel, pianist/London Philharm
onic Orch/Malcolm Sargent, cond.

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Although, between 1932 and 1948, Schnabel made three recordings each of the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, plus two of the Second, he made only one each of the First (in 1932) and the Third (in 1933). Nalen Anthoni's program note explains certain tempo anomalies in the first movement that Schnabel solved intuitively, but it wasn't until after his death (in 1951) that Beethoven's autograph manuscript was found, the original time signatures restored, and the pianist's hunch vindicated. Nevertheless, there are some accelerations in the recap that you won't hear in recordings by the generation that followed.

That said, this1933 memento is another demonstration of Schnabel's interpretive profundity in Beethoven's keyboard music -- despite finger slips that were part of his signature (nowhere more shockingly than in the "Hammerklavier" Sonata , Op. 106) and, albeit less often or as egregiously, some rhythmic muddiness. From Beecham's prewar London Philharmonic, one must also put up with string portamenti in later pages of the slow movement of No. 3, and queasy intonation at the opening of the slow movement of No. 4.

It has never ceased to puzzle me that Schnabel certified Malcolm Sargent to conduct what was, after all, the first complete recording of Beethoven's piano concertos. Sargent had yet to be knighted -- indeed was something of a house conductor at EMI, known to audiences for the ubiquitous red carnation in his lapel, and to a majority of London orchestral players as "Flash Harry." His specialty was those choral engines so dear to British audiences, although now and then he revealed surprising interpretive affinities. However, Schnabel also settled for Frederick Stock in RCA Victor's stateside remakes of Nos. 4 and 5 at Chicago in 1941-42, and after the war for Issay Dobrowen (Nos. 2 and 4) and Alceo Galliera (No. 5) to lead the newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra .

No. 4 has been a classic interpretation -- indeed a benchmark -- since its first release almost 70 years ago, although in both remakes Schnabel's technique remained consistent. Here, in Mark Obert-Thorn's painstaking transfers from pristine 78-rpm discs, with a less intrusive surface than Pearl's earlier CD-set of the same material, it remains a classic if not quite the benchmark of yore. For an encore Naxos adds the C-major Rondo, Op. 51, No. 1, which Schnabel's artistry transformed from a bauble into an opal. For historical perspective as well as spiritual kinship with Beethoven, especially at Naxos' prices (and the "Emperor" sure to follow), Schnabel's 1932-35 performances belong in any serious collection, although for an overview I still remain a partisan of Brendel's versions with Bernard Haitink conducting the same (but not the same) LPO -- the pianist's second, or was it his third, complete set. In any case it predated a good but not comparably probing remake with the James Levine and the Chicago Symphony (which had already played a Solti-led set of the concertos with Vladimir Ashkenazy). I confess a fondness, too, for Wilhelm Kempff's DGG recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, although he insisted on playing alien cadenzas in place of Beethoven's, and made no complaint about Ferdinand Leitner as his conductor, in many ways a German counterpart of Malcolm Sargent (without the carnation).

R.D. (Sept. 2001)