From time to time, I revisit the 1932-37 recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas by Artur Schnabel. Schnabel, a consummate musician renowned for his intellectual incisiveness, was the first pianist to record the entire cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The interpretation of Op. 90, which returns structurally to a format of two movements, is remarkable. The dynamic alterations required in the phrases of the opening movement are attended to impeccably, and the tempo of the second movement is somewhat faster than that taken by modern pianists, but it strikes me as right and avoids the danger of the sixfold repeated theme, so songful in expression, becoming languorous and slightly tedious. The playing of the concluding a tempo figurations of the last two bars fills a person with wonderment and an almost breathless aesthetic exhilaration.
András Schiff, in his Wigmore Hall lecture, makes many shrewd observations on the fine detail and concentration of attention and thought the composer brought to bear. Start, for example, with how the opening eight bars are to be realized, with their differentiation in note value, phrasing, and volume.
This sonata has long been held by me in a deep and special place, for it makes known a deep and special meaning. This is increasingly overt as the second, final movement re-translates the lyrical theme. Many years ago, when my father died in 2001, it provided the stimulus for a fifth part of the eulogy “Ashes of the Oceanic Sun,” which is contained in my book, Caravaggio’s Dagger. I worked on it at length when, in assessing inclusions for a potential exhibition in the Netherlands of master ceramists, I was in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, and, indeed, completed it; but, some years later, I discarded it, for two reasons. First, having been written at a time separate from that in which the first four parts were conceived, it did not follow successfully; and second, I considered that I did not fully capture the plangent singularity of the sonata, and in not doing so, did not serve the memory of my father adequately in that regard.