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Artur Schnabel plays Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827):

1. Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1798) *** [37’56"]
2. Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1795) ** [28’10"]
3. Bagatelle in A minor, "Für Elise" [3’03]
4. Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 (1801) ** [33’49"]
5. Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806) ** [31’33"]
6. Rondo in C major, Op. 51, No. 1 [4’42"]
7. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor" (1809) *** [36’35"]
8. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 * [23’33"]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897):

9. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (1859) **** [47’22"]
10. Intermezzo in E flat major, Op. 117, No. 1 [4’53"]
11. Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2 [3’18"]
12. Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79, No. 2 [6’01"]
13. Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881) ***** [45’16"]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)

14. Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838)
Artur Schnabel (piano)
* Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)
** London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
*** London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
****London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by George Szell
***** BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult
Recording dates and venues:
1. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 23 March, 1932
2. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 5 April, 1935
3. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London 9 May, 1932
4. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 17 February, 1933
5. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 16 February, 1933
6. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London 13 April, 1933
7. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 24 March, 1933
8. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London 6 and 16 December, 1934
9. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 9 January and 18 December, 1938
10, 11 and 12. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London 4 June 1947
13. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London 7 and 14 November 1935
14. EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London 3 June 1947

NAXOS 8.505189 [69’08" + 70’04" + 60’07" + 61’34" + 62’16"]


 

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 by Sargent.

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 absorbing.

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 Schnabel completists.

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 sonata.

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 [1947], 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 clear.)

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.

John Quinn



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