Schnabel's Beethoven Restored


No LESS EXCITING than the development of the compact disc has been the admirable (and somewhat surprising) willingness recently shown by several record companies to employ the new technology to resuscitate, in better sound than was ever before possible, some of the classic recorded performances of the pre-LP era. One of the most important and welcome evidences of this willingness is the release, on three Arabesque compact discs, of the five Beethoven piano concertos, as recorded in 1932—1935 by the great pianist Artur Schnabel and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Concertos No. 1 in C, Op. 15, and No. 2 in B-flat, Op, 19, are on Arabesque Z6549; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, and No. 4 in G, Op. 58, are on Arabesque Z6550; and No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 (Emperor), is on Arabesque Z6551, which is filled out by previously unreleased 1938 Schnabel performances of two Beethoven shorter pieces, the Polonaise in C, Op. 89, and the Andante in F (“Andante Favori”), Op. 170 (Grove).

Though his fame was never so great as Toscanini’s, Schnabel, who lived from 1882 to 1951, is the only other twentieth-century musical artist who has had such a profound and lasting influence on the way that all of us now hear the greatest music of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century. Like Toscanini’s performances of the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, and the operas of Verdi and Wagner, Schnabel’s performances of the sonatas and concertos of Beethoven and Mozart and the sonatas and shorter piano pieces of Schubert made contemporary critics, performers, and ordinary listeners feel that at last they were in direct contact with the music itself rather than with the intervening, and often intrusive, personality of the interpreter. For just as Toscanini rebelled against the nineteenth-century tradition of self-indulgent virtuoso conductors, so Schnabel rebelled against the corresponding tradition of nineteenth-century virtuoso pianists. Both men resisted — and disproved by their life’s work—the popular notion that in musical performance the expression of emotion and the articulation of structure are necessarily opposed, feeling and intellect forever at war. Both demonstrated, again and again, how individual events in a piece of music could be given their full expressive due while structure and continuity were not only preserved but actually heightened thereby. And both, fortunately, left many recordings that have passed on to succeeding generations their particular solutions to this central, and most general, problem of musical interpretation.

Schnabel for many years refused all invitations to record. Besides not liking the ways in which the recording process distorted piano sound, he was of a somewhat mystical turn of mind and believed firmly that any piece of music worth playing was greater than any performance of it could ever be. Therefore he was most reluctant to freeze a work for posterity in any particular performance, even his own. Though he made a few piano rolls during his first visit to this country, in 1921-1922, he made no records until 1932.

That Schnabel began to record at all was largely owing to the immense persuasive powers of Fred W. Gaisberg, the artists’ representative for His Master’s Voice. Gaisberg had been in the recording business from its very beginnings, having worked, in the 1890s, as an assistant to Emile Berliner, the inventor of the modern process of disc recording that soon replaced the Edison cylinder process. During the 1920s and 1930s Gaisberg was personally responsible for most of the greatest recordings of that golden era—he has told the story of his many conquests very entertainingly in his 1942 memoir, The Music Goes Round.

When he approached Schnabel, he caught the pianist at what Schnabel’s biographer, Cesar Saerchinger, has aptly called “the psychological moment.” A few years earlier, in 1927, Schnabel had completed his edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas and, to mark the centenary of Beethoven’s death, had played all thirty-two sonatas in a series of seven Sunday concerts in Berlin. Now, in January of 1932, he had agreed to give another complete Beethoven sonata cycle, in London’s Queen’s Hall the following autumn. Moreover, the disastrous postwar inflation in Germany and the subsequent worldwide depression had left Schnabel short of money. He agreed to record for Gaisberg but only on condition that he be allowed to do all thirtytwo Beethoven sonatas and all five concertos; the sonatas would be issued on a subscription basis, the concertos as regular market items. The contract was signed in February, and sessions began soon after.

EVEN MORE THAN the recordings of Mozart and Schubert that he would make in later years, Schnabel’s Beethoven sonatas and concertos changed forever the listening habits of the civilized world. Before Schnabel’s recordings appeared, these works were by no means the recital and concert staples that they are today. A few of the sonatas, such as the “Moonlight,” the “Pathetique,” and the “Appassionata,” were heard frequently—partly, no doubt, because of their Romantic nicknames. But not many had been recorded. The great late sonatas, like the late quartets, were thought too abstruse and demanding for popular audiences, and were hardly ever programmed. The concertos fared somewhat better, but they were overshadowed by the big late-Romantic concertos, and it was by no means taken for granted, as it is today, that virtually all of them would be heard over the course of each season of every major orchestra. They too had been recorded only infrequently, and some had never been recorded at all.

What was it Schnabel brought to Beethoven’s music that installed so much of it that had hitherto been neglected in the permanent repertory? Because his approach to Beethoven was so carefully calculated to exhibit the works themselves rather than his own technique, it is very difficult to say anything about any supposed “Schnabel style"—whereas, for example, it is not at all difficult to say a good deal about the “Horowitz style.”But it was perhaps Schnabel’s uncanny ability to articulate clearly and powerfully Beethoven’s great slow movements—those of the last four sonatas, say, or of the third and fourth concertos— that first drew listeners to his performances. No matter how slow the tempo, the pulse was never lost, the shape and meaning of every phrase were always immediately evident, and the tone was beautifully full and round. The music seemed (and on records still seems) to fill enormous space without ever wandering beyond its firmly prescribed bounds.

Yet Schnabel played Beethoven’s fast movements with an unmatched gaiety and verve. When his recordings began appearing, the popular image of Beethoven was very much the one neatly encapsulated in the title of Robert Haven Schauffler’s 1929 biography, Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music—Beethoven the scowling, Titan-browed Romantic revolutionary who is supposed to liaxe violently overturned classicism, as embodied in the xvorks of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven (as Schnabel himself once scornfully put it) “the eternal wrestler indiscreetly shouting out his own sufferings.” By giving us not only the power, spirituality, and inwardness appropriate to this image but also Beethoven’s wit, playfulness, and explosive high spirits, and by articulating with such unexampled clarity the strictness of his forms, Schnabel demonstrated that Beethoven’s relation to his great classical predecessors was far from one of simple opposition. In his playing he thus made a historical statement about Beethoven very similar to that made by the English musician and scholar D. F. Tovey in his essays (Tovey was, incidentally, a friend of Schnabel’s). Both men laid to rest forever the simpleminded Romantic stereotype of Beethoven by revealing to us the man himself, in all his dazzling, challenging multifacetedness.

Listen, for example, to the ebullience with which Schnabel plays the very Mozartian finale of Concerto No. 2 (actually the earliest of the five concertos), or to the more elaborate, glancing wit with which he renders the more complex finale of No. 1. Or listen to the way he handles the long transition from the rapt slow movement of the Emperor to its robust finale. Or to the way in which, at measure 68 of the finale of No. 3, he dissolves the grimly suave intensity of the movement’s opening into incisive contrapuntal joyousness, one hand chasing the other down the keyboard. Or, perhaps best of all, listen to the first movement of No. 4, the greatest of all the Beethoven concertos.

No one before Schnabel had captured, at least on records, the quietly contemplative air of the very opening, with its shock of having the piano begin alone, without orchestral introduction, and then be answered by the orchestra in a remote key. Several years after Schnabel’s recording of No. 4 appeared, the great Walter Gieseking, as his recording with Karl Bohm and the Saxon State Orchestra testifies, was still placing that opening in a pertly staccato fashion; because of Schnabel’s example, no pianist in the world would think of playing it that way today.

There are many other splendid moments in the first movement of No. 4. At measure 105 the music moves unexpectedly into B-flat, and the piano, which has just been occupied in energetic figuration, is given a little four-bar interlude, with the right hand playing an expansive and eloquent single-finger melody high on the keyboard as the left hand, four to five octaves below, rumbles arpeggios that seem to come from the very bowels of the earth. Without disturbing the movement’s basic tempo, Schnabel somehow relaxes to the point where time seems to stop. The interlude is over in a few seconds, but it seems to go on forever; we seem to be, in Eliot’s phrase, “At the still point of the turning world.” And this is true, once again, when the interlude reappears, in slightly altered form, during the recapitulation, at measure 275.

In Schnabel’s hands—to use that phrase quite literally—these effects all seem effortless, perfectly natural and even inevitable, simply and obviously what Beethoven must have intended. But of course Schnabel did not achieve them without tremendous effort and unique analytical intelligence. In addition to being a great performer he was a great (and very influential) teacher. One of his pupils, Konrad Wolff, has published a fascinating little book, Schnabel’s Interpretation of Piano Music, which demonstrates in detail the kind of thinking that enabled Schnabel to achieve his solutions to interpretative problems in Beethoven and the few other composers he performed. Wolff also makes it clear that what Schnabel endeavored to pass on to his pupils was not particular solutions but rather a mode of analytical thought.

Reading Wolff’s book, we can see what Schnabel’s teacher Theodor Leschitizky, Europe’s greatest trainer of virtuoso pianists, meant when he told the young Schnabel, early in their relationship, “Artur, you will never be a pianist. You are a musician.”Schnabel, in his teaching, was loftily contemptuous of virtuoso playing, and never dwelt on questions of mere technique. What mattered was the shape of the music, as determined by close study and as re-created at the moment of performance with the spontaneity and freedom that can come only from close study. Occasional technical lapses were of little importance to Schnabel. Perhaps his most important characteristic motto as a teacher was “Safety last!”

SCHNABEL’S 1932-1935 recordings of the Beethoven concertos catch him at the height of his technical and interpretative powers. Later, in 1942, he recorded the fourth and fifth concertos with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; after the war, in 1946 and 1947, he returned to London to record all the concertos except the first with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Issay Dobrowen (Nos. 24) and Alceo Galliera (No. 5). These later recordings have often been available in LP reissues but are not at the moment. Their sound is of course superior to that of the 1932-1935 recordings, and both the orchestral playing and the coordination between soloist and orchestra are better than under Sargent. But Schnabel’s playing on the earlier recordings is freer, fresher, and more varied than on the later ones. There is also an interesting 1945 broadcast performance of No. 3, passionate and impulsive but rather sloppy, in which Schnabel is accompanied by the New York Philharmonic under George Szell. It is available on Melodram 203, which may be ordered from German News, Inc., 220 East 86th Street, New York, New York 10028.

There have been several LP reissues of Schnabel’s 1932—1935 Beethoven concertos, but none has done justice to the quite adequate sound of the original 78 rpm records. The best ones I have heard are those included in Arabesque set 8103-4, which has now been complemented by the Arabesque compact discs. EMI’s Keith Hardwick, perhaps the world’s foremost expert at transferring 78 rpm records to tape, was engaged by Arabesque’s parent company, Caedmon, to prepare the analog tapes used in making the LP set, which was issued in 1980, and it is Hardwick who has prepared the digital tapes for these new compact discs. He has informed me that when he came to prepare the new digital tapes, he listened to his earlier analog tapes and realized that “The bottom end of the frequency spectrum needed a substantial increase to enhance realism.” And indeed, one of the triumphs of the compact discs, clearly evident because of their absolute silence, is the presence of clean, full, natural bass, free of artificial inflation and “boominess.” A number of clicks and pops present on the earlier tapes (and hence on the LPs) have also been removed.

Concertos Nos. 1 and 5, recorded in 1932, probably presented the greatest problem. The sound of the original 78s, while clear, is a little shrill and edgy on the high end. Hardwick has removed the shrillness—though at slight cost to the high frequencies of the music. Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, recorded the following year, have fuller sound, which Hardwick has captured admirably, especially on No. 3. Concerto No. 4, when compared with a properly equalized but unfiltered tape of the 78s, sounds to my ears a little constricted on the bottom end. Concerto No. 2, recorded in 1935, is altogether different in sound from the others: very rich and smooth, with fuller bass and slightly muffled treble. Here Hardwick has been perfectly faithful to the 78s.

All in all, then, these discs are a great success, an indispensable addition to any serious collection. The only defect I have noticed is a slight “pinging" distortion on some of the high piano notes that is not present on my well-worn copies of the 78s. This is particularly evident in Concerto No. 1. In these remasterings Keith Hardwick has, I think, been a little bolder than usual in admitting the surface noise of the original 78s in order to preserve the high frequencies of the music more or less intact. Now I wish he would be still bolder and allow the high frequencies, surface noise and all, to come in virtually unfiltered. One quickly grows accustomed to surface noise and learns to separate it from the music; anyway, anyone who is interested in buying compact discs of performances recorded more than fifty years ago is out not for modern sonic splendor but for absolute fidelity to the sound of the original 78s. Arabesque has already issued two LP sets of Schnabel’s Schubert recordings (8137-3 and 8145-3), and compact-disc versions will follow soon. For the present, EMI, which holds the copyrights on the Schnabel recordings, is unwilling to part with any more material. But one hopes that in time the complete Beethoven sonatas, together with the Diabelli Variations and shorter solo pieces and the Mozart concertos and solo pieces, will become available on compact discs prepared with care equal to that expended on these three compact discs of Beethoven concertos. There could be no worthier use tor the new digital and laser technology. □