Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1 (Sonata quasi una fantasia)
Fantaisie in C, Op.17
Three Piano Pieces, Op.11
Claudio Arrau (piano)
Recorded at BBC Studios, London on 3 March 1959 (Schoenberg) and 16 October 1960
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: December 2004
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 64 minutes
During the last few years labels such as BBC Legends and Orfeo have presented us with numerous live performances by great artists in pretty good sound. Prior to the advent of these labels the sound on many pirate LPs and CDs of public performances was pretty dire. But access to the tapes of radio stations has improved things enormously.
BBC Legends has however had a few problems in that it was found that the Corporation hadn’t bothered to record some live performances or, if it had, the tapes were damaged or lost. This led to appeals to collectors to loan their ‘private’, desirable off-air recordings. This Arrau CD is somewhat peculiar; we have a pianistic giant of the last century in studio performances of Beethoven and Schumann, tapes supplied by the British Library. All the recordings are mono.
Arrau recorded the Beethoven and Schumann for Philips in the 1960s, but the Schoenberg does not feature in his discography and for many will be this issue’s most attractive feature. This particular Beethoven sonata (the companion to the ‘Moonlight’) was not a great success in Arrau’s complete cycle and it doesn’t fare any better here. The first movement is slow and rhythmically dead and much the same can be said of the short second. Arrau’s tempo in the Adagio is measured, but the ‘espressione’ marking doesn’t bring the light and shade that Schnabel found here. In the last movement the tempo is more fleet, but very evenly voiced; the tremendous variety that Kovacevich captures is missing.
Schumann’s great Fantasy brings a performance that is an improvement on the studio version. Arrau’s Schumann could be pretty monumental and his tempos in the first and last of the three movements are certainly broad, but the music always moves forward and the conception carries great conviction. Certainly in the first movement Arrau’s opening tempo means that the contrasting slower sections don’t come with the jolt that you get with Pollini. The second movement scherzo is a big improvement on the very heavy and ponderous Philips performance. In the gently rising and falling chorale that opens the final, slow movement, Arrau finds a quiet and eloquent gravity and his rubato sounds far more natural than it did in his commercial version. Indeed Arrau conveys an impassioned spirituality throughout the movement that is very moving. If, however, you are looking for an element of quixotic imagination, then you won’t find it here; for that go to Perahia or, live in 1974, Curzon. If you want power-pianism of quite extraordinary variety then go for Pollini, but he can sound impersonal and I do find his tempo changes in the first movement extreme. With Arrau you get a very individual, powerful and heavyweight performance of Schumann’s greatest piano work, and I would certainly recommend that you hear it.
So to Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Op.11. For some reason there are still people who reach for the “off” control when confronted with Schoenberg and/or atonality. These pieces are, like so much of the music of the Second Viennese School, very romantic works. The spare and bleak intervals of the opening to the first piece have an aching nostalgia and throughout there is a sense of passionate unease and questioning. In the second this questioning gives way to a beautiful nocturnal conversation. The very short third is faster and more angular, and has always reminded me of the similarly concise ending to Chopin’s B flat minor sonata. Arrau’s conception of these works shows that he understands that, try as Schoenberg may, he couldn’t break away completely from the influence of the 19th-century Austro-German tradition, which was in his blood. Throughout, Arrau’s tone is warm, with subtle rubato and limpid phrasing and isn’t afraid to use the sustaining pedal. Pollini offers a more acerbic and rigid approach, but both views are entirely coherent and you really need both.
In performance terms the Arrau is a desirable disc once you get past the Beethoven. However there are problems with the sound. As I mentioned, the tapes came from the British Library and I can only presume that the ones from 1960 weren’t in very good condition. The degree and constancy of pitch variation in the Beethoven and Schumann items is pronounced. The Schoenberg is however much better. Dynamic range and definition is limited, but again better in the Schoenberg. This lack of real detail is disappointing, the sound-picture has a sort of enveloping warmth and softness which is very unnatural and doesn’t allow the listener to hear the true quality of Arrau’s tone or appreciate the gradations in his rhythmic and dynamic attack.
Nevertheless this disc is a must for lovers of Arrau, Schumann and Schoenberg and therefore comes with a strong recommendation.