Music & Arts CD-1173 (5 mono CDs), 65:08; 62:17; 71:40; 71:28; 74:27 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
Some years ago, I attended a forum on Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) given at the University of Maryland as part of the William Kapell Competition, where were installed as commentators such eminences as Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Claude Frank, and Harris Goldsmith. The topics ranged, as do Mr. Goldsmith’s comprehensive liner notes for this M&A edition of Schnabel’s Schubert, from Schnabel’s idiosyncratic style in Beethoven and Schubert, to his far-ranging effect as a pedagogue and inspiration, a purveyor of the tradition he had imbibed from Theodor Leschetizky and Eusebius Mandyczewski.
I had myself created several radio programs dedicated to Schnabel during my years at WHRW-FM, SUNY Binghamton, utilizing LPs in my collection, like the Mozart G Minor Piano Quartet, the Emperor Concerto with Frederick Stock, and the Schubert Impromptus.and Moments musicaux. I had been literally under Schnabel’s spell in the Impromptus from 1950, on an Electrola import copy; I had not known it was Schnabel’s last set of recordings. Now, with the able Mark Obert-Thorn’s pitch corrections, Schnabel’s suave, pert, even roguish interpretations sound more pristine than ever – the magnificent F Minor from D. 935 weaving its heady magic in those singular triplet figures only Schnabel could execute so idiosyncratically; and his filmy trill, which I always find captivating. The Allegretto in C Minor (rec. 1939) was a filler piece for the B-flat Sonata recording, and here it sounds eternally wistful. The busy little March in E filled in the last side for the Sonata in D, D. 850. Typical of Schnabel, it is martial without becoming oppressively percussive. Schnabel always manages soft and powdered landings, much like his contemporary Benno Moiseiwitsch.
I gravitated next to another of my sentimental favorites from Schnabel, his 1935 reading of the Trout Quintet with the Belgian Pro Arte Quartet, whose 19th Century mannerisms often seem at odds with Schnabel’s set-jawed, focused approach. There are compensations, however, in the vocal articulation of phrases and the constant awareness of formal balance, even if Schnabel occasionally runs ahead of the pack. More fascinating, perhaps morbidly so, is Schnabel’s collaboration with his wife, contralto Therese Behr-Schnbel in lieder like Der Doppelgaenger from 1932. Behr’s voice is intelligent, but it is not at all pretty. Her range is stifled by age and wear-and-tear. The lied Die Stadt sounds altogether eerie, the majority of words undecipherable, but the declamation and whispering compelling our unease. The high notes all shatter. Schnabel’s pianism is in good form, with real menace in the bass line for the Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. When Behr switches to chest-tone, she gets musical mileage, for my money. The Erlkoenig enjoys good characterization in a relatively restrained reading.
The pep and infectious bounce of the ensuing 1937 Marches Militaires with son Karl Ulrich make a pungent, potent anodyne to the heavy handed vocalism of Mother Schnabel. The thrill of discovery yet permeates the father-son renditions of Schubert’s four-hand music, like the wonderful Hungarian Divertissement, D. 818, the expanded version of the Hungarian Melody, D. 817. Exotic rhythmic playfulness abounds, with all sorts of light-fingered, snaky rhetorical devices tracing their way through the bass lines: a handbook for Liszt’s gypsy style! Despite persistent tape hiss, the magic persuades us that the Schnabels attended the Schubertiads in Vienna. Besides the buoyant Marches, D. 819, the real find is the Allegro in A Minor “Lebenssturme,” my having learned the B Minor Andantino varie, D. 823 with the Casadesus duo (CBS ML 5046). The date for the Lebenssturme recording appears to be in doubt: Goldsmith says 1939, but the liner notes claim 1937. The volcanic piece surges below while the liquid melody sails in the treble. The sudden shift from mezzo-voce to forte proves quite stunning, and the writing becomes more aggressive, only to lighten up for A Major in the final pages: a happy, quick menuet-march.
Schubert’s Moments musicaux, D. 790 with Schnabel appeared on my first radio tribute to him in 1966. Schnabel always reminds me of the kinship between these pieces and the Beethoven bagatelles. The C# Minor owes debts to Bach; and although my favorite performance remains Serkin’s on CBS, Schnabel plays the group with great sensitivity, even if the C Major is a bit fast. The A-flat enjoys a reserved pathos; the little F Minor is a bit boxy but delicately pedaled. The C# Minor is my least favorite reading: it is too fast in the outer sections, and the trio suffers willful propulsions of accent. He cuts the repeat from the second F Minor Moment. The long A-flat sings tenderly, musing along the way, close to the spirit of the Impromptus.
I saved the big sonatas for last. As much as anyone, Schnabel is responsible for the rediscovery of the Schubert piano sonatas for 20th Century piano repertory. The 27 January 1939 Sonata in D, D. 850 was its first inscription. Schnabel emphasizes its striking stylistic affinity with aspects of Beethoven, alternating pearly runs with thunderous convulsions. Several times, we hear echoes of the Waldstein Sonata. Schnabel’s sound patina in this new, refurbished recording can be hard, the tempos driven. Some lovely, devotional contours in the Con moto movement will permit us to forgive the metric lapses in the Scherzo, especially the addition of an extra beat at phrase ends. The Rondo permits us a glimpse of Schnabel’s music-box sonority as well as his occasional shrill clamor. Little retards on the end notes give this Grieg-like movement persuasive character. The posthumous A Major Sonata was the first Schnabel inscribed, 14-15 January 1937, and it may be the crown of his contribution to Schubert interpretation. Lyrical and expansive, Schnabel lets us savor the composer’s ability to sustain musical impetus from disparate motifs, Beethoven-style, especially Op. 31, No. 1. Allowing for the rhythmic license Schnabel employs, this reading is among the very best, give my penchant for Serkin’s splendid CBS account made late in that pianist’s career. The second movement Andantino, with its imitations from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, communicates mysterious compassion. The whole is a natural, exalted progression, most genial. Goldsmith has quibbles with the 1939 B-flat Sonata, which he finds “nervously impetuous.” I do not mind the piece shedding its heavenly serenity that parallels its heavenly length. The second movement Schnabel takes andante, but the breadth of the conception soars. It is in the finale that digital slovenliness runs a bit rampant, even if the poetic rhetoric means well. In all. a pioneering spirit and nobility of line informs all these efforts, and Schnabel’s Schubert ought to occupy a space at least equal to his status as a proselyte of Beethoven.