Hearing the Old as New Again

Beethoven Cello Sonatas - Fournier/Schnabel

One of the main joys of rescuing vinyl is the discovery of artists from previous generations, who perhaps have been displaced in public view by their successors.  Although I don’t play it, I possess a secret, inarticulate love for the deep, sonorous sounds of the cello, and so I’ve picked up a number of records by artists I never knew, but who I am now learning to appreciate deeply.

The French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) recorded a complete cycle of Beethoven’s cello sonatas with Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) in 1947/1948, a set that I found on a 1972 LP released as part of Seraphim’s “Great Recordings of the Century.”  Schnabel was in the twilight of his career, Fournier near the pinnacle of his; Schnabel, Jewish and Austrian, left Germany (where he had initially settled) after the Nazi Party took over in 1933, never to return, while Fournier was temporarily blacklisted in the United States for Nazi collaboration (for performing on a German station during the war and accepting payment – not, I’m sure, the only musician to do so, given the complexities of the Vichy years).

Whether Fournier and Schnabel discussed politics during their musical collaboration (which also included a number of chamber music performances in the UK with Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti and Scottish violist William Primrose), I don’t know.  Nor do I know their respective positions on the war, which surely was still a raw subject just a few years after its conclusion.  But what strikes me is that music so often has the power to act as a bridge or even a magnet for bringing opposites together.  In listening to these five sonatas, the unspoken understanding and the ability to find common ground in the score of these gorgeous pieces is transcendent.

One of the first cellists to whom I really listened was Jacqueline du Pré, whose broad and lovely tone of playing somewhat set the bar for me.  But – and not being a cellist myself, I may not have the right words for this – while Fournier’s tone has that same sort of depth, it’s more controlled, more focused than du Pré’s.  (Not for nothing was Fournier referred to as the “aristocrat of cellists” in his day.)  Amazingly, the sound of these recordings on the player does not suggest that they are seventy years old; Schnabel and Fournier could easily be sitting in the next room.

I often wish that I had the opportunity to play chamber music nowadays; the joy of making music with others is one that I miss deeply.  Listening, however, is the next best thing, and this wonderful recording reminds me that the generations that preceded us were just as skilled, just as intuitive, and much to be appreciated for their musicality and talent.  That we can still hear their magic, seventy years (or more) on, is a true gift and not to be taken for granted.

~ L

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