You can find a lot of surprises when you are browsing Amazon.com. I came upon a bargain set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas by Artur Schnabel. These were recorded in the 1930’s and I believe may have been the first set of complete sonatas issued on 78s. Whether they were first or not, they have a history of being legendary performances, and I never got around to listening to them, until now. They set of 101 tracks is on sale for a measley $1.99, yep, pretty much all of the Beethoven Sonatas for under 2 bucks. Sonata Op. 110, but has a few other choice tracks.
Performance wise, I have only gotten thru a few of the works, but Schnabel’s reputation is well warranted, these are really, really good renditions. The piano has a distictive sound, and the playing has emotion and a certain freedom to it, not so clinically perfect as some of todays’ musicians. I will confess that my favorite Sonata pianists are Kempff and Backhaus with their 1960’s era recordings, so I tend to be partial to ‘old school’ players anyway. This music is a joy to listen to, and I think some of these may become my favorite versions of certain sonatas.
Of course there is a catch, especially at the price. These are mastered from vinyl 78’s, so there is some background noise, and the fidelity is not modern in the least. I guess the best way to describe it is hearing someone playing piano in an empty gym, and you are at the other end at the top of the bleachers. Now, this is not as bad as it seems, and my ears adjusted quickly to the acoustics, and the playing overrides any concerns with sound quality. There is a distance to the piano, and some of the loud notes do have some telltale distortion, but these are definitely listenable. There is also a bit of variability from one sonata to another. I recommend not using headphones, that tends to accentuate the surface noise, but not unbearably so…
There are several releases of these works from various labels, and a few have some better remastering of the sound, but they can be quite expensive. There is only so much you can do with old recordings, and for the price I do not think you are sacrificing much in the way of listenable sound quality. And while I am not a big fan of MP3 format piano music, I do not think there are any significant sonic benefits to getting a CD version in this case. FYI iTunes also has these if you prefer, at about $10 currently.