BEETHOVEN:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 21.  Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 19.  Fr Elise.
Artur Schnabel, pianist/London Symphony Orch. (Concerto No. 1); London Philharmonic Orch (Concerto No. 2)/ Malcolm Sargent, cond.
NAXOS 8.110638 (B) (ADD) TT:  69:08

Pianists who've recorded all five Beethoven piano concertos since the mid-'30s have become a regiment. In the most recent edition of Schwann/Opus they range from Vladimir Ashkenazy (three times in the stereo era) to Kristian Zimerman. Alfred Brendel has also made three versions (or is it four by now?), likewise the late Artur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau.. There have been two by Wilhelm Kempff, Rudolf Serkin, and Emil Gilels -- even fortepiano versions by Steven Lubin...but you get the idea. Catalogs have contained classic one-time-only completes in mind-boggling abundance -- by Leon Fleisher, Wilhelm Backhaus, Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini -- and less-than-classic ones by Barenboim, Schiff, Glenn Gould, Weissenberg, Gulda, and doubtless others in vintage catalogs I jettisoned of necessity over the years as living space shrank.

If I had to choose favorites they were Brendel''s with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic, and Kempff's with Ferdinand Leitner and the Berlin Philharmonic (except I was always been put off by his choice of alien cadenzas in Nos. 2 and 4) . But, like most listeners of my generation, the touchstone was Artur Schnabel's pioneering five for HMV, with Malcolm Sargent leading the London Symphony and (later) Philharmonic, recorded in Abbey Road's Studio 1 between 1932 and 1935. A subsequent American series begun by RCA Victor with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony was suspended after Nos. 4 and 5 when, in 1942, the conductor died. After WW2 a third series, with the Philharmonia Orchestra led by Issay Dobrowen and Alceo Galliera, was never completed because of Schnabel's death in 1951.

Stateside, his 1932-35 performances were issued by Victor in 78-rpm albums that consistently won the gold in published guides -- David Hall's first, followed closely by Irving Kolodin (chief critic of the Sun, later of The Saturday Review), and Bernard Haggin, the anchorite of Brooklyn (who, when not warring with editors, wrote for The Brooklyn Eagle, terminally for The Nation magazine). The postwar-2 years saw Schnabel displaced by younger, not to say more persuasive exponents of the Beethoven literature. It was the advent of CD that restored his 1932-35 versions, remastered and issued by Arabesque, a U.S. label. When copyrights on the originals expired abroad in the 90s, Pearl digitally remastered the best 78s at their disposal (by whom I don't know, sorry) and issued them on three pricey CDs - a set I never heard although it earned high praise in Britmags. Which brings us to this first of what will surely be three Naxos CDs, featuring transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn from "mid-1930s scroll-label American Victor shellacs, the quietest pressings on which these recordings were available." The filler, a 1932 performance of Für Elise, originally on the last side of Concerto No. 1, was included (rather than the 1938 version for the Beethoven Sonata Society set ) "although somewhat dimly recorded. I have tried not to filter the surface hiss excessively, so that what highs there are in the original recording would remain."

But there is hiss, at a higher level than my tolerant ears quickly adjusted to; nor is the reading one of Schnabel's masterpieces until a cadenza leading back to the A-section. In the 1932 LSO performance of No. 1, there is also hiss, not just at the start, but counterbalanced by the 50-year-old Schnabel's timeless interpretation, played with utter security. He didn't attempt to make it sound more "mature" than the date of composition (after No. 2, despite the publisher's juxtaposition of numbers). The Second Concerto -- that is, the first one from Beethoven's Vienna period -- sounds a shade less "peaky" than the 1932 recording of No. 1, but then it was the last of the series, made with the LPO two years after the others. (By that time the Nazis had driven Schnabel into British exile. In 1939, he moved to the U.S. and became a citizen, although he died in Switzerland, just as Hindemith would do a dozen years later.)

What surprised me, however, after decades away from these storied performances, was Schnabel's predilection for uncommonly slow tempi in the middle movements of both concertos (marked Largo and Adagio, respectively). He sustained their phrasing, but at moments only just. How, I wonder did he play these movements at age 30, or 40? What further surprised me, without caveat, was the high quality of Malcolm Sargent's partnership - not "Flash Harry" here, as players (and a lot of critics) called him in later years. Stock, for one, sounded lumpish by comparison a decade later, despite the Chicago Symphony's deep-plush sonority.

At Naxos' price, every collection -- no matter how many versions one owns singly or collectively of what, after all, is Basic Repertoire -- should include this and the discs that follow. A cultivated ear -- meaning one that listens to music -- will promptly adjust to the sonic age of these legendary illuminations, and surface sound (when it can be heard) is hardly more intrusive than the concert-hall squirmers, page-turners, coughers and whisperers next to or near your seat: to which "Progress" has added the latest electronic indignities -- beepers, and the dreaded cell-phone.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)