Artur Schnabel: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings = BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 32 in c minor, Op. 111; SCHUBERT: Four Impromptus, D. 899 – Artur Schnabel, piano/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Frederick Stock – Sony 88985389712 (2 CDs) 70:03; 73:18 (5/19/17) ****:
The master Artur Schnabel’s 1942 RCA recordings come back as an integral, essential release.
The Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) legacy receives a long-delayed comtribution with this reissue of the sparse few recordings the Viennese master made in America. Some years ago, I attended the William Kapell Competition at the University of Maryland that featured a Schnabel symposium, hosted by Karl Ulrich Schnabel and including distinguished ex-pupils and commentators Claude Frank and Harris Goldsmith. Each reminisced on Schnabel’s hegemony in the music of Beethoven, with particular references to movements and passages from selected sonatas. When Alexis Weissenberg played the G Major Concerto in Atlanta, I asked him if his sudden accelerando at the very end of the linking phrase from the Andante con moto to the attacca finale were from Schnabel’s influence, and he quickly retorted, “Yes, and it’s very important.”
Each of the American recordings comes from 1942 (16 June-24 July), the last year for conductor Frederick Stock, who always adds a fierce energy to his chosen repertory. The two Beethoven sonatas remained unpublished until March 1976, when they were received with mixed reviews, mostly on account of the dearth of new repertory that might have surfaced. The Schubert Impromptus had been lauded by son Karl Ulrich Schnabel as superior to the 1950 HMV readings that had, for many, set a standard of warm excellence in Schubert interpretation, especially given the keyboard sound that Schnabel had inherited through teacher Theodor Leschetizky. Though Schnabel had recorded all of the Beethoven concertos with Malcolm Sargent in1932, and two more with Issay Dobrowen, the Stock readings bestow an aggressive thrust and bite into the collaborations that we miss prior. Despite the occasional finger slips and slurred pedal, the performances preserve the experience of a life’s devotion to the Beethoven cause, aided by a youthful enthusiasm nurtured by constant, meditative aesthetic renewal. I well recall having bought RCA LCT-1015 on LP, the “Emperor” Concerto with Schnabel and Stock and then proceeding to air it on my SUNY Binghamton radio show on WHRW. Now, in its restored sound, the largesse of the occasion reminds me how much in thrall I would remain to Schnabel for many years.
The Schnabel realizations of the Beethoven sonatas have always been an anomaly: rife with intellectual edits and justifications for the most contrived performances, the actual playing virtually discards all such mental gymnastic for pure emotion. The liquid tone in the Adagio espessivo portion of the E Major Sonata enjoys a transparency of touch that seems patented. The Prestissimo second movement suffers a rushed tempo and acerbic sforzandos, but the softer passages convey a mystery for all time. The Andante molto and its variations bask in special, aural space, in which silences breath with the same passion as the trills and ariosi. For all of the impassioned furor of the c minor’s Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed espressivo, Schnabel attempts to instill a sense of intimacy, even in spite of the hectic abandon in his playing. The counterpoints assume a personal atmosphere, valedictory and learned, at once. We consistently feel that this music shall always remain greater than it can be realized in sound.
The set of Schubert Impromptus, D. 899 stands as the major contribution unearthed in this set. Rather stentorian, the c minor sets a declamatory yet lyrical sensibility that reigns throughout. The natural arch in Schnabel’s melodic line sets the standard for Schubert instrumental vocalism. The E-flat Major and its Chopinesque runs and roulades enjoys a cheery confidence that exhibits a swaggering elan in Schnabel we often miss in our “serious” assessments of his art. The G-flat provides us a rare moment of a Schnabel nocturne, an ardent song without affectation. It was the 1950 reading of the A-flat Major Impromptu by Schnabel that made me a convert; so, for me to hear his earlier, crisper runs and breathed phrases – especially in that wonderful cello melody that emerges – only compounds my sense of revelation, a consummation devoutly to be wished.