Summoning the spirit of Schnabel

by Martin Saving

It is hardly original to note the incredible, unique breadth of expression displayed in the music of Beethoven. His ambition to search for new tools for expressing emotions never seems to have decreased. Equally unoriginal is the notion that a musician’s role can be likened to that of an actor; the task is to identify and express, convincingly, all the different characters and emotions hidden in the score. Combined, these two ideas put great strains on the shoulders of a player tackling Beethoven’s music. He or she needs to be a real character actor, a sort of musical (pre-1990s) Robert de Niro.

The cliché attitude to Beethoven is the demonic, ever-frowning Teuton, so deeply serious that no mortal human being could ever aspire to fathom even a part of his output. I’ve always found this approach unappealing. There is no denying that all these characters form part of the vast spectrum of Beethoven’s universe, but when they are exaggerated and applied to all his music, I’d rather not listen.

In my search to broaden my horizons in regard to Beethoven, I got hold of Artur Schnabel’s recordings of the piano sonatas. The fact that I had heard few or none of these might in itself be punishable with a good whipping, but this was nevertheless the case. And listening to them was quite a shock.

I had for some reason expected something quite different from what I heard, perhaps because of a combination of the fact that this recording, held in such high esteem by musicians, was already 80 years old, and the mere sound of his imposing German name, long since added to the Olympus of the musical gods. But the Beethoven that Schnabel presented sounded incredibly modern, yet at the same time very unlike much of what you hear today. The width of expression was truly astounding.

Artur Schnabel (1882 – 1951) was born in Lipnik, in present-day Poland, and spent his early years in Vienna before moving to Berlin and finally emigrating to America. He was a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who in turn had studied with Carl Czerny, the pupil of Beethoven. He specialised throughout his career in the great Viennese composers, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, something that was rather unusual in the time of the great virtuosi. Schnabel was, apart from being a composer and pianist, also an editor, and published his own edition of the Beethoven sonatas, which is still held in high regard. Between 1932 and 1935 he recorded all the sonatas (it was indeed the first complete recording) at the Abbey Road studios in London, and the rest is history.

The recordings have been re-released in a multitude of different remastered versions, and connoisseurs debate which version to own. Schnabel recorded on his preferred piano, a Bechstein, the sound of which is rather like something halfway between a modern Steinway giant and a fortepiano.

How does he do it?

There is something about Schnabel’s characterisation that never sounds premeditated, but rather natural and spontaneous. There is no self-conscious over-articulation or over-emphasis of the different voices. In fact, many times you get the feeling of listening in on a conversation in some foreign, yet completely understandable language, the meaning of which is felt rather that understood. You get a strong feeling of listening to someone speaking the language of Beethoven in his mother-tongue.

The wide range of characters and emotions displayed in Schnabel’s musicianship is at least in part due to great extremes in tempo. The fast movements, especially in the early sonatas, often have a youthful vigour. They are humorous, playful and conversational. One actually has the feeling that in some of these pieces he has come to the same conclusions as some of the period-performers of the modern age, but from a completely different direction. (Leon Fleischer, one of Schnabel’s most famous students, labels Schnabel as “the antecedent of today’s period-performance approach to classical music: he cleaned up a lot of the excesses that his contemporaries tended to indulge in”.)

But in the slow movements, some of which are very slow indeed, he finds a profundity and tenderness that is possibly unequalled. What inspires the most admiration is perhaps how Schnabel conveys the deeply felt sentiments to such an astonishing degree without ever sounding sentimental or pathetic, at least never when such emotions are not called for.

Listeners have noted that Schnabel’s recordings have a few technical imperfections. Schnabel disliked the recording experience and was apparently not at his best during his time in front of the microphone. There is a story of an over-zealous technician trying to “clean up” the recording when it was being remastered by patching certain places using a more accurate version from a repeat. The result was sterile in comparison, and he was told by his superior to “put those goddamn clinkers back!”.

There is something ambiguous about a musician’s attitude to technical imperfections. We constantly strive for some kind of perfection, yet we tell ourselves that mistakes really don’t matter as long as the proper feeling is present. We acknowledge the truth in this, yet somewhere, deep within, we stay unconvinced. Especially when listening to recordings, we cannot help but regard technical mishaps as a jarring distraction.

One can spend hours lamenting how the focus in making music has switched towards the technical aspect rather than the musical in the last fifty-or-so years, or how the recordings of old were hampered, technically speaking, by little or no editing. Yet it seems like there is no going back (although the recent popularity of live recordings may be a light at the end of the tunnel).

But for the first time, perhaps with a desperate need to admire and worship, I felt when listening to Schnabel’s recording that the technical imperfections not only were quite easy to overlook, but they at times almost filled a purpose. Just like the perfectly articulated speech delivered with ideal elocution by an RSC actor is not appropriate for a Ken Loach film, in the same way crystalline articulation and virtuosity in a musical passage don’t always go hand in hand with the musical emotions of, say, desperation and frenzy. In the same way as a hesitation or a small mistake on a theatre stage add drama and a sense of reality, so, in my mind, some of Schnabel’s imperfections add humanity, authenticity and grittiness, qualities that might be extra important in Beethoven’s music.

Isn’t this how Beethoven should sound?



Recommended listening:

Op. 2 No. 1

Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’: Allegro con brio

Recommended viewing:

On YouTube one can find a series of lectures by the tremendous pianist Eunice Norton, a former pupil of Schnabel, talking about his teaching in general and approach to Beethoven in particular.

Recommended reading: My Life and Music (Schnabel), My nine lives (Fleisher)


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2 Responses to “Summoning the spirit of Schnabel”

  1. Joel says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Saving. The Schnabel performance of op. 109, for instance is deeply expressive without being fussy. Modern performances (Barenboim or Goode, for instance) have an element of arbitrariness in the approach to rhythm that I never feel with Schnabel… and what a range of expressive moods, even given the limited sonics of the 30’s recording technology! The Adagios are heartfelt, and the Allegros just whirl along. The most satisfying Beethoven performances that I know.

  2. Josh says:

    I find Schnabel to be rushed and unfeeling–exactly the opposite of the natural and spontaneous that you describe. He seems like he couldn’t wait for the torture of the recording session to be over, and therefore was rushing through what should have been very important work, especially passagework. He was obviously better when he didn’t know he was being recorded–I have a few airchecks from the 1940s where he is wonderful–but in the studio he may be, after Paderewski, the worst pianist of the 20th century. In fact, I prefer Paderewski, all in all. This myth that Schnabel got to some sort of magical truth in Beethoven, handed on down from high by the Oracle at Delphi, is just that, a myth, probably built up by people who’ve never listened to many of his recordings.

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