Schneiderhan’s & Seemann’s Fabulous Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-10 / Wolfgang Schneiderhan, vln; Carl Seemann, pno / DG 4838591, also available on YouTube for streaming in individual movements

Here’s a set I didn’t even know existed until three days ago, even though it was recorded in 1959 and reissued by DG, on and off, on both LP and CD down through the decades. This latest incarnation dates from 2020, the year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but I missed it then, too, because Naxos of America doesn’t distribute Deutsche Grammophon albums.

So what makes it so special? The irresistible combination of proper tempi, flawless instrumental execution, exciting and sensitive playing from the heart, and a feeling that this duo just walked into the studio and exploded their Beethoven onto tape. Prior to my hearing this recording, my favorite version of these sonatas was the Bridge recording by the little-known (but equally exciting) duo of violinist Barbara Govatos and pianist Marcantonio Barone, but in making an A-B comparison between the two recordings, Schneiderhan aces out Govatos in terms of technique. Though a fine violinist for the most part, every so often in each movement her bowing is not quite “centered” properly, the result being a somewhat raspy sound on certain notes. Schneiderhan has no such lapses; his playing is on a par with the best violinists I’ve ever heard, including that paragon of technique Jascha Heifetz. In the second movement of the first sonata, I felt that Govatos and Barone played with just a bit looser rhythm, but to be honest I felt that Schneiderhan and Seemann were even a bit more into the music.

But who were these players? Schniederhan, I’ve discovered, was considered to be Austria’s best post-war violinist. He played with a very bright timbre, sounding almost like a Russian or an Italian violinist, and was married to German soprano Irmgard Seefried from 1948 until her death in 1988; he himself lived until 2002, so he saw quite a few reissues of this recording. He was concertmaster of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1933 (at the age of 18!) to 1937, and succeeded Arnold Rosé as concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1937 to 1951, yet continually kept up his career as a soloist and chamber musician.

Carl Seemann’s background was even more unusual. As a young man, he couldn’t decide between a career in music or in theology; he ended up playing a great deal of religious music on both organ and piano as a church musician. After World War II, however, Seemann turned increasingly to solo and chamber music, and was considered one of the greatest German pianists of his time. Unfortunately, his work was overshadowed in the 1960s with the emergence of the great Russian pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter (as well as the Austrian Friedrich Gulda and American Van Cliburn), and he faded from view. Five years older than Schneiderhan, he died in 1983. Ironically, a 1999 reissue of Seemann’s recordings led to a major reassessment of his artistry, and he finally received his just due.

Since these works are so familiar, it wouldn’t do for me to describe them movement-by-movement, but there were many little details in these performances that grabbed my attention, such as the playful manner in which they approached the last movement of the Sonata No. 4 and all the little rhythmic “lifts” in the first movement of the “Spring” Sonata. In the Seventh, Seemann’s piano part almost sounds like a malevolent spider crawling across the keyboard, lurking and planning to pounce on the poor violinist, which he does in the forte piano chords in the first movement, yet the spider-across-the-keyboard feeling recurs with the single-line bass notes Seemann plays in the second movement. The excellence of the “Kreutzer” sonata was a foregone conclusion with this duo, but even I was surprised at how much drama they were able to wring out of the Eighth Sonata, generally played in a lighthearted vein.

Possibly the single most interesting thing about this set is that, even if you’ve heard a dozen complete sets of these sonatas, listening to it almost gives you the impression that you’ve never really heard these works before. Numerous little details suddenly strike you that you’ve never noticed in anyone else’s recordings, no matter how “great” they are or how they’re the most sought-after violinists/pianists of their generation. No one but musicians and music-lovers were seeking out these Schneiderhan-Seemann recordings, either when they first appeared or decades later, but people will still be listening to these 1959 recordings long after the most sought-after musicians have stopped being looked for.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Schneiderhan’s & Seemann’s Fabulous Beethoven

  1. J Huizinga says:

    A superb review showing how closely you listen (among other countless virtues). FYI Schneiderhan was the soloist under Frank Martin in the latter’s indispensable recording of his absolutely great Violin Concerto (Claves). You recently reviewed Martin’s Requiem in only its second recording. Many thanks!

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