Naxos Historical 8.111286, 69:12 (Not Distr. in USA) ****:
This disc contains all of the Bach recorded by the great Austrian pianist and pedagogue Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), who performed Bach rarely in public (except 27 November 1937 at Queen’s Hall, London and in May 1946 at Albert Hall, London), having expressed the opinion that Bach’s intimate sound better suited the salon and the recording studio. These shellacs, which traverse a period 1936-1950, include his last inscription (on a Steinway rather than upon a Bechstein instrument), that of the D Major Prelude and Fugue (13 June 1950), made six months prior to his last recital in January 1951 at Hunter College. These performances have had a previous issue on the Doremi label (DHR-7740), as issued by Jacob Harnoy; the Naxos producer is the fastidious Mark Obert-Thorn.
Schnabel always enjoyed the challenge of Bach: the fact that Bach often provides no precise tempo and dynamic indications leaves many decisions to the performing artist, often a matter of individual taste. The aspect of choices and the possibility for revision attracted Schnabel to this music. Schnabel opts for a brisk realization of the Italian Concerto (11 November 1938), the outer movements fluid and brilliant, florid without intrusive bloating of the phrases. The rapid passages in the outer movements, legato and non-legato, display a daunting technique at work, giving the lie to Rosenthal’s nasty quip that Schnabel was rejected from the Austrian army because he had “no fingers.” A moderate tempo marks the C Minor Toccata (24 November 1937) opening, a measured, graduated approach to the sectionalized polyphony Bach presents in three parts, the Adagio (Fugue) of which elicits that old Schnabel, articulate magic we know so well from his Schubert. A slight Viennese lilt pervades the counterpoint, as charming as it is pointed. The Allegro (Fugue) extends the canonic figures with equally measured grace and bravura, the stretti achieving verve and intensity at once. The bass tones in this transfer prove particularly piquant and motorically fascinating.
The D Major Toccata (24 November 1937) has always brightened the repertory, whether inscribed by Jambor, Gould or Schnabel. A festive piece, its rollicking first foray has Schnabel’s applying a gently martial air as the four beats play off each other then subdivide, extend, and provide syncopes in variegated colors. The Adagio has a Beethoven coloration in its repeated notes and broken melody; the harmonic motion deepens for the Fugato, sweetly lyrical and melancholy. A brief series of runs and recitative, and the romp through the Presto begins, a flighty gigue of elfin spirits. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (15-16 June 1948) recorded in London on the Steinway, a driven, articulate performance, notable for its fluid prowess in the arpeggiated sections and the muscular clarity of the fugue, which keeps an Italian character rather than descends into Teutonic solemnity, impressive. The large work, the Concerto for 2 Pianos in C (28 October 1936), pairs Schnabel with his gifted son Karl Ulrich (1909-2001), whom I met at the Kapell Festival in Maryland some years ago for a convocation on Artur Schnabel that also featured a star pupil: Claude Frank. The Schnabels waste little sentimentality on the opening Allegro, moving with an alacrity well ahead of my personal favorites, the two Casadesus: Robert and Gaby on Sony, and the Clara Haskil/Geza Anda version for EMI. The phrasing, however, retains its shape and its verve. The second movement, whose marking Adagio overo Largo rates as the most curious in Bach, plays like a meditation from The Art of Fugue. Fleet, spirited, rhythmically buoyant, the last movement Fuga allows Boult and the LSO to shine in their own right, assisting the Schnabels in amiable harmony.
The little treat is the D Major Prelude and Fugue, a study not without its anticipations of the later Op. 25 Etudes 2-3 of Chopin. An even pulse and loving hands; particularly the note of sweetness in an otherwise mechanical set of figures in the fugue, create a special moment in Bach and a fond example of Schnabel’s keyboard humanism.