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Remastering 78s: A Company Brings Clarity To Pianist Artur Schnabel's Works


This is FRESH AIR. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz loves old records - really old records, even before the age of vinyl. Many of those historic recordings have been transferred to CD, but not always as accurately as might be desirable. One company, Lloyd says, specializes in getting them exactly right.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Long before there were CDs, before there were 33-and-a-third and 45 RPM records, there were 78s, shellac discs that spun around on a turntable at 78 revolutions per minute. These heavy, brittle, breakable objects contain some of the greatest musical performances ever recorded, both classical and popular. But because the playback equipment, starting with the old windup Victrola, was so primitive, people assumed that the recording quality was equally limited. But it turns out those old discs held a wealth of information the playback equipment couldn't handle. Even when record companies began to transfer these old recordings to LPs and later to CDs, they didn't completely capture the actual performance. 78s, for example, weren't always recorded at exactly 78 revolutions per minute. They could be faster or slower and sometimes not consistently so.

But a small record company in France, Pristine Audio, has been re-mastering these old recordings in a revolutionary way, getting the speed and correct pitch of every moment precisely right. These recordings are often a revelation.

To my great delight, one of the central efforts of Pristine Audio has been to focus on the recordings of the legendary Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, who died in 1951. He was the first pianist to record all the Beethoven sonatas, and his recordings of the classics, especially Schubert, whose piano work Schnabel rediscovered for modern music lovers, remain for me the most profound, moving and probing performances I've ever heard.

The very first review I did for FRESH AIR was of Schnabel playing a Beethoven concerto. Pristine hasn't gotten around to re-mastering that one yet, but it has now released all the Beethoven solo works Schnabel recorded. I'd like to do something a little different from what I usually do in my review, and that is play for you an entire piece. In this case, one of Beethoven's most famous pieces, the little bagatelle, "Fur Elise." Even if you're not a classical music devotee, you'll probably recognize it. But unless you know this rare recording Artur Schnabel made in 1932, you've never really heard it.


SCHWARTZ: Schnabel's performance sounds effortless, but it's also uncanny. In most performances, the way those two neighboring notes toggle back and forth is part of the main tune - a trivial, little tune. But with Schnabel, those notes are more like a preparation for something extraordinary to happen. Time seems to stop. We're in some mysterious holding pattern, almost a trance, before we can go on with the rest of our lives. "Fur Elise" isn't the hardest piece to play, but no other pianist has ever captured what Schnabel hears in this music.

We're so used to Schnabel's piano tone being slightly muffled in some glowing haze, that for some admirers, the sudden clarity is something of a shock. It's like old varnish being removed from a great painting. And you can hear this new clarity in recent Pristine Audio recordings as different as Maria Callas singing "Norma" and the historic concert at the Library of Congress, in which the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti and his compatriot Bela Bartok were reunited. Pristine has also just released the first Schnabel Schubert recording, and I can't wait for the rest.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is senior editor of classical music for the online journal New York Arts. He reviewed the recently re-mastered recordings of pianist Artur Schnabel on the Pristine Audio label. After a break, TV critic David Bianculli will talk about binge watching versus shows that make you wait for it. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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