Naxos offer here, in a box of 5 CDs, the complete cycle
of Beethoven piano concertos set down before the Second World War by
Artur Schnabel, together with his recordings of the two Brahms concerti
which emanate from the same period.
During his lifetime Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) may
not, perhaps, have enjoyed quite the same réclame as,
say Rachmaninov or Horowitz. However, he was still a key figure among
pianists and since his death his reputation, especially as an exponent
of Beethoven and Schubert, has remained high. As this set illustrates,
his technique was not infallible but his musicianship and taste were
of the highest order.
In fact, to Schnabel belongs the distinction of having
made the first complete recorded cycle of the Beethoven concerti. (He
recorded all but the First Concerto again for EMI after the war.) This
pioneering set was made at the behest of Fred Gaisberg and it is quite
astonishing to think that these concerto recordings were among the very
first that Schnabel made. He was instinctively suspicious of the recording
process and it took some persuasion on Gaisberg’s part to get him in
front of the microphones. The choice of Malcolm Sargent to accompany
him was a logical and sound one for the two artists were by then accustomed
to working together in the forum of the Courtauld-Sargent concerts in
London. Schnabel had been instrumental in prompting the wealthy Mrs.
Lil Courtauld to establish these concerts in 1929 and was a leading
light at the concerts, invariably accompanied in concerto performances
Concerto No. 1 was the first to be set down
(followed the very next day by the mighty ‘Emperor’). Here we find Schnabel,
aided and abetted by Sargent, giving a sprightly and graceful account
of the first movement. He plays with poise and conveys not only his
respect for the music and his complete understanding of it but also
his enjoyment of it. The movement culminates in a commanding performance
of Beethoven’s third (and most elaborate) cadenza. The second movement
is serene and songful in Schnabel’s hands. The playing is full of character
and has a lovely, natural flow. At the start of the finale (CD 1, track
3) some may be disturbed, as I was first time round, by some very small
imprecisions of rhythm and articulation as the piano announces the rondo
theme. Certainly I have heard crisper accounts of this passage and nowadays
a retake would certainly have been ordered. However, the imprecision
is of no real significance, I suggest, beside the spirit of
the playing. The performance of the concerto as a whole is most successful.
The recorded sound for the Second Concerto,
made three years later, is brighter (or fiercer, according to taste).
Now working with Beecham’s LPO, Sargent once again provides an attentive,
well-turned accompaniment (as, in fact, he does throughout the cycle).
As in the First Concerto, Schnabel’s playing in the first movement is
lithe and stylish. There are some occasions when his fingers seem to
run on ahead and momentarily the rhythm becomes unstable as a result.
This occurs from time to time throughout the cycle and if you value
precision above everything else these performances will not be for you.
I can only say that with one (very significant) exception I did not
find this a barrier to my overall enjoyment of the set. Here, in the
Second Concerto, I found that small imperfections did not detract from
the overall integrity and intellectual honesty of the pianism.
As so often Schnabel is, perhaps, at his greatest,
his most searching, in the slow movement. In his dignified and poetic
reading of the slow movement of the B flat concerto one feels that every
note has been deeply considered and its significance in the overall
scheme of things has been precisely weighed. I should stress, however,
that this does not mean that the performance is ‘calculating’ in a pejorative
sense. There is abundant spontaneity and Schnabel unfolds a living,
breathing performance which constantly moves forward with a sense of
purpose. This is pianism of the utmost distinction and the closing bars
in particular (CD 1, track 5, from 7’12") have a lofty detachment which
is quite remarkable. The concluding rondo is Beethoven at his
cheekiest. It’s a movement for which I have an enduring soft spot. After
the questing slow movement Schnabel sets off at a racy tempo and sends
us away with a smile on our faces. This is a joyful conclusion to a
fine performance of a concerto to which I usually find myself a little
less strongly drawn as compared with the others in the canon, though
not on this occasion.
At the start of the Third Concerto Sargent sets
the tone by directing an urgent and alert account of the orchestral
introduction. The movement as a whole has a strong sense of purpose
and forward momentum. Towards the end of the movement there are some
fluctuations in pulse which may disconcert some listeners. Others, however,
may feel that this adds a sense of spontaneity, even danger. Comparison
with Schnabel’s 1947 EMI recording (now on Testament SBT 1021) in which
he was partnered by the Philharmonia under Issay Dobrowen, finds the
first movement just a little more grand and measured in the later performance
(with an even more commanding account of the cadenza).
Returning to the 1933 performance, the hushed inwardness
and repose at the start of the slow movement is really quite special.
It’s as though Schnabel was alone in the studio, communing with himself,
and has the same intimacy that one finds time and again in his recordings
of the sonatas. I realised that I was actually listening to this music
just some three weeks short of seventy years after the recording was
made. The rapt poetry of Schnabel’s playing seemed to reach out across
the intervening seven decades in a most affecting way. This performance,
to which Sargent and his players contribute fully, is very special indeed
and I was completely in thrall to it. Fourteen years later, in 1947,
Schnabel used the sustaining pedal even more liberally in the opening
pages of this movement and engaged in a similarly rapt colloquy with
the orchestra. It was instructive to hear much less portamento from
the Philharmonia strings – how quickly fashions change!
The last movement has a wholly enjoyable impetuosity
though the 1947 performance is better, I think. Articulation by both
pianist and orchestra is crisper and the rhythms are just a shade more
pointed and vital in the later recording. Fine though both the 1933
and 1947 recordings are, I believe there is an even better representation
of Schnabel in this work though sadly it may be less easily accessible
to some collectors. This is the ‘live’ performance from June 1945 included
in the New York Philharmonic’s set The Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987.
On that occasion Schnabel was partnered by George Szell who conducts
trenchantly and sympathetically and gets fine playing from the NYPO.
To my ears Schnabel was in excellent form in 1945. He’s really aristocratic
in the first movement, taps into a rich, deep vein of poetry in the
Largo (with elevated support from Szell), and gives a vibrant and impulsive
(sometimes too impulsive?) reading of the finale. Though you’ll have
to put up with infuriating applause between each movement this performance
is well worth hearing if you get a chance.
In his 1933 account of the Fourth Concerto Schnabel
may strike some listeners as being surprisingly direct at the very start;
there are no poetic musings here. (He adopted the same approach in his
1946 remake, now available on Testament SBT 1021.) This is Beethoven’s
most lyrical piano concerto and I found no shortage of lyricism in Schnabel’s
playing of it. However, there is also backbone and a firm sense of underlying
purpose as well. Dare I say it, this is a very masculine reading although
this is not to suggest that refinement is lacking. Sargent matches his
soloist’s mood. I found their interpretation of the first movement very
Schnabel is similarly clear-eyed in the brief slow
movement. At first hearing his contributions to the discourse with the
strings may seem almost plain. In reality, there is no "false poetry"
here. Schnabel is wise enough and sufficiently confident simply to let
the music speak for itself without intruding himself between the listener
and Beethoven. It’s a self-effacing approach and at the end of the movement
one feels that the strings have been subdued by reason rather than by
poetry. The finale is full of brio and joie de vivre and provides an
ebullient ending to a masterly traversal of the score.
I could detect few substantive differences between
this performance and the 1946 recording. Both display a similar forward
propulsion and direct, classical approach though perhaps some may find
the Largo is a bit more easeful in the 1946 reading.
In the ‘Emperor’ sweep and grandeur of
conception are in evidence right from the opening cadential flourishes.
Sargent embarks on the main orchestral introduction vigorously; this,
one feels, is to be a performance with a firm sense of direction (even
‘no nonsense’). There are one or two brief passages (such as the ten
bars or so at track 1, 5’01") where the music sounds rushed but order
is soon restored and I did not find these instances a serious drawback.
Perhaps a more serious problem for some listeners may be the balance.
I found that the soloist was more forwardly balanced against the orchestra
than was the case in the other concerti (perhaps this is simply because
the writing for the piano is more forceful in the ‘Emperor’?)
This does mean that there are a number of instances where the orchestral
scoring is fairly light and the piano is going at full tilt and obscures
the accompaniment. Overall, however, this is a commanding, majestic
yet sensitive traversal of the first movement. Anyone who seriously
doubts that Schnabel was a great artist should hear this. It’s interesting
to note how fleet the performance is. Schnabel takes a mere 19’02" for
this movement compared, for example, with Solomon who takes 19’26",
Gilels 19’56" (his 1957 reading, now on Testament) and Brendel (his
recording with Rattle) who requires 20’54".
The sublime adagio is taken very broadly. This
movement is distinguished by the soloist’s filigree musings over the
top of the orchestra and Schnabel, one feels, has weighed every note
precisely and inflected each one with the utmost care while contriving
to sound completely spontaneous – again, the hallmark of a great artist.
The finale is initiated by Schnabel as a fiery dance.
He throws down the gauntlet to Sargent who picks it up readily. Just
occasionally in this movement Schnabel’s technique proves marginally
fallible in the passagework but the verve and conviction of the performance
itself are such as to render such matters of little consequence. This,
then, is a great and humane ‘Emperor’ even if a few frailties
in the orchestral playing remind us of the extent to which standards
have risen in the last 70 years.
This generously filled box also contains Schnabel’s
contemporaneous recordings of the two piano concerti by Brahms,
in both of which he is partnered by conductors who were, throughout
their careers, noted exponents of that composer’s music. George Szell
is on the podium for the First Concerto and is in excellent form
throughout, shaping and moulding the orchestral accompaniment very well
and displaying a mastery of rubato. At the start he projects the volcanic
orchestral paragraphs strongly and when Schnabel begins to play he sound
in fine form. At the F major poco più moderato (CD 4,
track 1, 6’19") some may feel that he doesn’t quite relax enough (and
the same is true when that episode is recapitulated at 16’02"). However,
this is all of a piece, I think, with the essentially urgent interpretation.
It’s a pity that surface noise is a little obtrusive
at the start of the slow movement. Schnabel was always a superb exponent
of slower music and here his hushed musings are a thing of wonder. This
is a glorious adagio and Schnabel’s ruminative reading, sensitively
supported by Szell, does full justice to it. The good liner note by
Jonathan Summers quotes an absurdly pompous contemporary critique of
this recording which complains that Schnabel rushes in the finale. ("This
player ought really to take himself in hand" was the judgement!) However,
while I disagree with the way in which the criticism was expressed I
have to say, in fairness, that it was not entirely without foundation.
The finale is a bit scrappy in parts, especially during the first couple
of minutes, though Szell keeps a pretty firm grip on the orchestra.
There’s much to appreciate and admire in the concerto as a whole but
the finale is not really up to the standards of the first two movements.
I mentioned at the outset that I had one serious reservation
about this set and I’m afraid it concerns the Brahms B flat concerto.
Firstly, on my equipment at least, this has the shrillest recorded sound,
especially so far as the orchestra is concerned (though my ears adjusted
eventually). A more serious drawback, I fear, is Schnabel’s playing
in the first movement. Quite frankly, much of the playing is splashy
with many obvious wrong notes, especially in the frequent flourishes
for the soloist. Too much is rather approximate and, for once, I can’t
say that the inaccuracies are outweighed by insights for, despite the
dutiful support of Boult, Schnabel really doesn’t sound to have much
that is distinctive to say about this movement. To be quite honest I
was rather glad when the movement came to an end.
Inevitably, this left me somewhat apprehensive about
the rest of the concerto but, thankfully, things improve. In the second
movement Schnabel generally finds much more light and shade. There’s
much more fantasy about his playing and a much greater degree of accuracy
– though even here the closing bars are a bit of a scramble all round
(CD 5, track 15 from 7’21")
According to the informative notes, the recording of
the third movement gave the engineers trouble and some passages had
to be retaken on 14 November (though, in the immortal phrase, "you can’t
see the join.") The crucial cello soloist plays with plangent tone and
Schnabel’s first entry, beautifully prepared by Boult and his players,
has all the rubato and poetry you could desire. The wonderful più
adagio passage (CD 5, track 16, 6’21") where the piano, solo clarinet
and lower strings lead back to the restatement of the cello solo is
quite magical. It’s in passages such as this which confirm Schnabel’s
genius. From this point to the end of the movement the music making
is as rapt as can be.
The notes quote a contemporary review which complains
of a lack of Hungarian gypsy atmosphere, presumably referring to the
performance of the finale. I must say I don’t understand the comment
for it seems to me that for the most part the finale skips along lightly
(‘grazioso’ as Brahms marked it.) There are a few incidences
of untidiness but overall the shape and spirit is fine, I think though
I have heard better accounts of this movement.
On balance, I have to say that though the performance
contains many fine things I feel that this Brahms Second is more for
There are a number of "fillers" in this collection,
if that’s not too derogatory a term to apply to some of the substantial
works. The Schumann Kinderszenen is engaging and enjoyable
though I can understand some may find it too direct. Personally, I liked
the direct and unmannered approach to ‘Traümerei’ (CD 5,
track 7) It seemed to me that Schnabel had given this collection of
miniatures a performance just as well considered as, say, a Beethoven
The recording of the Beethoven G minor Cello
Sonata is particularly remarkable as it is the only commercial recording
which Schnabel made with Gregor Piatigorsky, despite the fact that Piatigorsky
was, with Carl Flesch, a member of the piano trio which Schnabel founded
in 1930. This is an excellent performance. The first movement is characterised
by aristocratic poise and the players interact well. This interaction
is even more to the fore in their well-turned reading of the second
movement. Some may feel that the tempo they adopt is well below the
marked allegro molto but I felt that the chosen speed allows
the music time to breathe and for all its points to be made easily and
naturally. The final rondo bowls along infectiously to complete a very
enjoyable performance which will make admirers of both artists regret
that this is the only official record of their partnership.
There are also a number of shorter piano solos including
three late recordings of pieces by Brahms. These are treasurable
late examples of Schnabel’s art and I can do no better than quote Jonathan
Summers’ verdict that these three recordings "reveal a deep understanding
of Brahms which, by this time , had matured into something very
special, introspective and personal."
This is a very important historical set which will
be self-recommending to all admirers of Artur Schnabel. I do have reservations
about the Brahms concerti, and about the Second in particular. Arguably,
from the collector’s point of view it might have been preferable not
to have combined the Beethoven and Brahms recordings in one box. That
said, at the ridiculously low price which Naxos ask for their recordings
one is not exactly going to break the bank acquiring the set and one
will be investing in some pretty marvellous and thoughtful performances.
So, even if you share my reservations about the Brahms concerti you
can, I think, afford to take a view on the set as a whole (and there
is still much to admire in those Brahms concerti, as I hope I’ve made
The set is well produced with good notes by a variety
of authors. The transfers are all by Mark Obert-Thorn and are up to
the high standards which one expects from his work. There is an abundance
of pianistic wisdom on display on these CDs (though, come to think of
it, perhaps "display" is the last word one should use of Schnabel).
This is a set which demands to be heard and Naxos deserve the thanks
of collectors for making these recordings widely available again.