The pianist Artur Schnabel was among the first great classical instrumentalists whose career was transformed by the invention of sound recording. But the precise nature of that transformation was not immediately evident.

Schnabel, after all, was neither the first major classical musician to record nor the first to do so extensively, and his recordings played no part in establishing his reputation. Born in 1882, he was already well known when he entered a recording studio for the first time a half-century later, long after most of his contemporaries had started to record. Even in America, whose classical-music culture was to a considerable extent brought into being by the phonograph, he had managed to make a name for himself without making records. The first mass-media puff piece to be written about him, a 1933 Time profile called “Beethoven Man,” neglected to mention that he was then in the process of recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos for HMV, the first such large-scale project ever to be undertaken.

These recordings would later help to solidify Schnabel’s reputation as one of the leading pianists of his time. But even in the 30’s and 40’s, when they were bringing him widespread acclaim, he was not universally admired, even by his peers. Arturo Toscanini, for instance, loathed his playing, while Virgil Thomson, the most influential music critic of the day, reviewed his New York recitals with a cool detachment far removed from the fawning enthusiasm with which he was touted in such middlebrow magazines as Time and the New Yorker:

For all the consistency and logic of his musicianship, there is too large a modicum of late-19th-century romanticism in Mr. Schnabel’s own personality to make his Beethoven—who was, after all, a child of the late 18th—wholly convincing to musicians of the mid-20th.

Posterity, however, has decided otherwise, and it has done so mainly on the strength of Schnabel’s records, which he continued to make up to the time of his death in 1951. He was the only classical performer of his generation who was given the opportunity to record the bulk of his concert repertoire, and though some of these performances are little known except to specialists, his Beethoven sonatas and concertos have remained in print more or less continuously since their initial release on 78’s.1

After 1927, when he played his first Beethoven sonata cycle in Berlin, Schnabel came to be known as a Beethoven specialist. Harold C. Schonberg, the longtime chief music critic of the New York Times, famously dubbed him “the man who invented Beethoven.” Schnabel himself disliked such talk, testily informing a New Yorker reporter that “it is my limitation that I play so much Beethoven.” And the fact that he recorded so much of Beethoven’s music—and that these recordings achieved such widespread and enduring circulation—distorted his posthumous reputation. Many present-day listeners are unaware that in his lifetime, Schnabel was no less widely admired for his interpretations of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, the four composers to whose music he devoted himself exclusively in the second half of his career.

Thus it is of the highest importance that Music & Arts, an independent record label based in California, has released two boxed sets that between them contain state-of-the-art transfers of all of Schnabel’s Mozart and Schubert recordings, many of which have long been hard to obtain. To hear them for the first time is to understand more clearly than ever before why, six decades after his death, Artur Schnabel is admired to the point of idolatry by countless music lovers not yet born when he played his last concert.2

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Schnabel pithily described his origins in a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago in 1945:

I was born in a small Austrian village, which belonged to the Austrian part of Poland. My parents were Austrian subjects whose religion was Jewish. . . . My birthplace was tiny and rather poor—a kind of suburb to a small town.

All of these things proved crucial to the shape of his later life. Though Polish by birth, he went to Vienna as a boy to study music; in 1900 he moved to Berlin and lived there until 1933, finding its artistic climate more sympathetic. But he had already been steeped in Vienna’s distinctive musical atmosphere, and his mature style was an amalgam of Viennese lyricism and German rigor. An assimilated Jew who never practiced his faith, Schnabel nonetheless grasped the threat of Nazism early on, and his Austrian citizenship made it possible for him to leave Germany when Hitler came to power. By then he was one of the best-known pianists in Europe, as well as a teacher of renown, and unlike many émigré musicians he had no trouble resuming his career, settling first in Italy and, later, the United States.3

“You will never be a pianist,” Theodor Leschetizky, Schnabel’s teacher, told him. “You are a musician.” Schnabel modestly claimed not to have known what that meant, but of course he knew perfectly well, repeating the bon mot on numerous occasions. (Nobody ever accused him of insufficient self-regard.) From childhood on, his musical instincts had led him away from the splashy virtuosity of late-19th-century composers. He played Chopin and Liszt early in his career—very well, too, by most accounts—but by the 20’s he had stopped programming their works. Instead, he played Mozart’s piano music at a time when it was generally thought to be suitable only for young children, and Schubert’s sonatas at a time when they were unknown to most pianists. As he later explained:

I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed. . . . Chopin’s studies are lovely pieces, perfect pieces, but I simply can’t spend time on them; I believe I know these pieces; but playing a Mozart sonata, I am not so sure that I do know it, inside and out. Therefore I can spend endless time on it.

In addition to giving solo concerts, Schnabel also performed chamber music with such noted colleagues as the violinists Carl Flesch, Bronislaw Huberman, and Joseph Szigeti and the cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Pierre Fournier, as well as accompanying his wife, the mezzo-soprano Thérèse Behr, in song recitals. He was, in short, the very model of a serious musician, and the older he grew, the more serious he became.4

Schnabel was by no means the only performer of Austro-German background to dismiss all other kinds of music as essentially insignificant. He was, however, one of the first such artists to have a major solo career in America, and his increasingly austere programs and platform manner—he never played encores—came to be seen by certain of his more naïve admirers as proof of his artistic purity. The title of the New Yorker’s 1938 profile of Schnabel was “Music’s Faithful Servant,” and though there would always be plenty of dissenters who found him narrow-minded, a not-inconsiderable number of concertgoers thought this accolade nothing more than the truth.

Unsurprisingly, Schnabel tended to get written about in tones of pseudo-poetic piety. A typical case in point is this 1938 review by the British music critic Neville Cardus:

There must reside in his being some stuff which has kith and kin with Beethoven’s own immortal mortality; in other and even more reckless language, Schnabel is spiritually related to Beethoven, with some of Beethoven’s fiery particles sent into him from the original act of combustion that was Beethoven.

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Fortunately, it is not necessary to rely on such burbling in order to know how Schnabel played. In 1933, a few months before his fiftieth birthday, he started making records.

He had long resisted doing so, claiming that this once-primitive technology was incapable of accurately reproducing the nuances of his playing. Then Fred Gaisberg, HMV’s chief producer, made him an unprecedented offer: HMV would record him in Beethoven’s complete sonatas and concertos, underwriting the risky venture in advance by marketing the recordings on a subscription basis. “Tempted by a nice fat guarantee, he eventually agreed that it was possible to reconcile his ideals with the machinery,” Gaisberg dryly recalled in his memoirs. It proved to be a good bargain on both sides: by 1939 HMV had reportedly sold a half-million dollars’ worth of Schnabel’s 78’s.

What one hears on them is the playing of a middle-aged man who did not much care to practice, and whose technique was not always equal to the demands of the music he chose to play. Schnabel’s most spectacular disaster on record was his 1935 recording of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which no less an authority than the piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter would describe as “totally unacceptable, absolutely impossible to listen to.” Scarcely less chaotic is a performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto made in the same year, in which Schnabel’s playing of the opening cadenza of the first movement is so messy that one wonders what possessed him (or HMV) to approve it for commercial release.

But Schnabel usually steered clear of such technically extortionate pieces, and most of the rest of his recordings leave no doubt that he was, like Alfred Cortot, a natural pianist whose occasional finger slips were the result of insufficient practice rather than inherent incapacity. To be sure, he never enjoyed making records. “In four minutes,” he told a friend, “you play perhaps 2,000 notes; in every take there are two notes wrong; then you make ten takes and choose the one with 20 wrong notes. It’s like being married to death.” But over time he came to terms with the process, and from the outset the essential qualities of his playing came through with great clarity.

The quality most immediately striking about Schnabel’s style—and the one recognized at once by his most perceptive contemporaries —is its rhythmic vitality. Leon Fleisher, his best-known pupil, described it as follows:

There would be this schwung, an irresistible swing to what he did, as though he were twirling you around in a dance. . . . The emphasis was that beats were never downward events, they were not like fence posts or the hammering of coffin nails—beats were upward springs that would spring you on to the next beat.

The impulsive forward momentum of Schnabel’s playing—it was so pronounced that he had a lifelong tendency to rush—helped ameliorate its other key feature. Like most Austro-German musicians of his generation, Schnabel used changes in tempo to delineate the structural features of the pieces he played, and his rhythmic flexibility was so pronounced that some musicians, Toscanini among them, felt that he slipped on occasion into outright exaggeration.

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This latter quality is what Virgil Thomson had particularly in mind when he referred to the “late-19th-century romanticism” in Schnabel’s style. He was absolutely right—except that Schnabel’s agogic distortions (the result of prolonged duration of notes) were not normally self-indulgent. To compare his 1937 recording of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata with the live performance recorded in 1938 by Josef Hofmann, the quintessential exemplar of Russian romanticism, is to hear the difference between a rhythmic freedom that gives the impression of arising organically from the structural contours of the music and an arbitrary stop-and-go flexibility that appears to have been superimposed on it.5

To say that Hofmann’s “Waldstein” is therefore inferior to Schnabel’s is to do nothing more than express a personal preference: it is impossible to say whether one approach is more “right” than the other. We know from contemporary accounts of Beethoven’s own performances that he played with a freedom of tempo that would no doubt sound alien, perhaps even wild, to our ears.

Might Hofmann’s playing have been closer to that unknowable ideal? Perhaps, just as it may also be true that we now think of Schnabel’s Beethoven as “definitive” in part because it is so familiar to us. To an extent not fully appreciated today, it is his way with Beethoven that we think of when we think of Beethoven’s music—which does not necessarily make it “right.” But that it works on its own powerful terms is now beyond question, and the mere fact that successive generations of listeners (myself among them) have been embracing it for the better part of a century presumably says something about its validity.

What worked in Beethoven, however, did not always work so well in Mozart, and Schnabel’s performances of the Mozart concertos, though unfailingly sensitive and intelligent, are sometimes marked by a rhythmic instability that sounds awkward to modern ears. Still, his devotion is never in doubt, and it is hard to imagine more convincing performances than those of the A Minor Rondo, K. 511 (recorded in 1946) or the G Minor Piano Quartet, K. 478, a rare recorded example of his chamber-music playing (recorded with the Pro Arte Quartet in 1934).

Schnabel’s Schubert is better still. Too often Schubert’s music is sentimentalized in performance by those who overemphasize its “Viennese” aspect. Schnabel, by contrast, was careful to emphasize Schubert’s Beethoven-like largeness of utterance without losing sight of the lyricism that is no less central to his style. Granted, this approach to Schubert can be overemphatic; but for the most part I find it wholly convincing, and I cannot imagine a better performance of anything than the seraphic version of the A Major Rondo, D. 951, that Schnabel recorded in 1937 with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, his son and pupil. Indeed, I know of no moment in Western art more purely beautiful than the coda of this little-known masterpiece, whose stern cadential chords magically dissolve into a simple upward arpeggio capped by a trill that Schnabel plays with perfect grace.

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Beyond the intrinsic musical interest of his recordings, Schnabel is of interest to us because he embodied a kind of artistic seriousness that was far more common in his time than in our own.

Consider, for instance, the reasons he gave for not wanting to make records:

I did not like the idea of having no control over the behavior of the people who listened to music which I performed—not knowing how they would be dressed, what else they would be doing at the same time, how much they would listen. Also I felt that recordings are against the very nature of performance, for the nature of performance is to happen but once, to be absolutely ephemeral and unrepeatable.

The first of his objections, seemingly quaint at first glance, turns out to be profound. Can there be any doubt that the ubiquitous availability of recorded music, for all of its self-evident advantages, has inevitably devalued the experience of listening? I yield to no one in my delight at being able to listen to whatever music I care to hear whenever I care to hear it; but I also know that the ease with which I can do so is a constant temptation to listen casually rather than with total involvement. To use Schnabel’s recording of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet as background music is to miss the point of why he made it—and why Schubert wrote it.

Schnabel’s second point also deserves careful consideration. One unforeseen consequence of the invention of sound recording, after all, has been to foster a cross-cultural sameness of interpretative style—what I have elsewhere called an “international” style. This has done much to diminish the pleasure of listening to classical music in our time.6 But it has also made it possible for us to hear the uniquely individual playing styles of the great musicians who made recordings in the first half of the 20th century—one of the greatest of whom, of course, was Schnabel himself.

One would hate to have to choose between being able to hear Artur Schnabel on record and being able to hear a more interesting array of young artists in the concert hall. But since history has already made the choice for us, we can only be grateful to Schnabel for having changed his mind on the subject. If any performing artist has ever deserved to have his interpretations made permanent, he was the one.

1 The main body of Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings, made for HMV between 1932 and 1939, has been transferred to CD several times. By far the best-sounding version was the one released in six separate volumes by Pearl and now out of print. In addition, Naxos is releasing all of Schnabel’s recordings on low-priced, well-engineered individual CD’s. These versions are not on sale in the U.S. because of copyright restrictions, but they can be ordered through Amazon’s British website,
www.amazon.co.uk. EMI has released an inferior-sounding boxed set containing only the sonatas (EMI Classics 63765, eight CD’s). This set can be downloaded from iTunes or purchased online by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website,
www.commentarymagazine.com.

2 Artur Schnabel: The Complete Schubert Recordings, 1932-1950 (Music & Arts CD-1173, five CD’s) and Artur Schnabel Plays Mozart (Music & Arts CD-1193, five CD’s). Also of interest are Schnabel’s studio recordings with the Pro Arte Quartet of the Schumann and Dvorák piano quintets (Music & Arts CD-1196) and a 1943 live performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto accompanied by Pierre Monteux and the New York Philharmonic (Music & Arts CD-1111). These CD’s can be ordered directly from
www.musicandarts.com.

3 Schnabel was one of the few great performing musicians who could teach gifted pupils without suppressing their individuality. All of his best students, including Clifford Curzon, Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher, and Lili Kraus, developed distinctive styles of their own.

4 He also composed, in a style not unlike that of Arnold Schoenberg; but he never played his own music in public (or any other modern music, save for a single performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire). No major performer has shown any interest in reviving these compositions, with good reason. Flesch described Schnabel’s solo violin sonata as a “strange mixture of talent and impotence, of originality and unnaturalness.”

5 Hofmann’s performance of the “Waldstein” Sonata can be heard on The Complete Josef Hofmann, Vol. 6: The Casimir Hall Recital (Marston Records 52014-2, two CD’s). This set can be ordered from
www.marstonrecords.com.

6 See my
“What Killed Classical Recording?” (COMMENTARY, May 2001).

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