Artur Schnabel (1882 - 1951)

Although Artur Schnabel’s parents were not musicians, they encouraged their children to study the piano. At the age of six, young Artur played for Hans Schmitt, a professor at the Vienna Conservatory. The Schnabel family moved to Vienna, where Artur had been accepted as a pupil by the great teacher Theodor Leschetizky, but by the time he was eleven the family had to return to their commitments in the town of Bielitz. Schnabel therefore lived in lodgings with another family, as his parents could not return to Vienna for four years. Leschetizky had already realised Schnabel’s special talent when he said of him, ‘You will never be a pianist; you are a musician.’ Instead of prescribing a musical diet of Chopin, Liszt, paraphrases and transcriptions, Leschetizky encouraged Schnabel to explore the piano sonatas of Schubert, works which at that time were rarely played, and he also arranged for Schnabel to study theory and composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski.

Schnabel gave his adult debut in Vienna and decided to move to Berlin, giving his debut in that city the following year. As a teenager, Schnabel made a living from teaching and performing on tour with instrumentalists, all the while composing music. Although he played with the best musicians, his performing career was slow to start. He played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Arthur Nikisch in Hamburg and Berlin, and with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. The twenty-two-year-old chose the same work for his London debut with the Hallé Orchestra and Hans Richter and gave a recital at Bechstein Hall (later Wigmore Hall) four days later. Some reviews were good, others not; but in any case, Schnabel did not return to London for twenty years. Back in Berlin he played Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto Op. 73 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Strauss.

During his years in Berlin, until he left due to the rise of Hitler, Schnabel and his wife, contralto Therese Behr (1876–1959) became the centre of musical life in the city. He taught at the Hochschule für Musik and gave regular recitals including an historic Schubert series in 1928 for the centenary of the composer’s death. His success at home led to Schnabel playing throughout Europe during the 1920s, as well as making four tours of the Soviet Union and two of America. At his Carnegie Hall debut he played a typically uncompromising programme of Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960 and Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5. He returned to London with great success in 1925 and in 1930 received rave notices for his performances of both Brahms piano concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky.

In the centennial year of Beethoven’s death Schnabel played Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas in Berlin in seven recitals, repeating the series in London and New York during the early 1930s. From 1933 Schnabel lived in Tremezzo, Italy where he gave summer master-classes while continuing to perform in America and parts of Europe. After a tour of Australia in the middle of 1939 the Schnabels decided not to return to Italy, and went instead to America. During World War II Schnabel performed less often, but taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and continued to compose. His series of lectures, given in 1945 at the University of Chicago, was published as My Life and Music. He gave his final recital at Hunter College in January 1951, after which ill health compelled him to go to Switzerland where he died in August of the same year.

Although Schnabel played virtuoso repertoire at the beginning of his career, including Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23 and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, he quickly became associated with composers of ‘serious’ and cerebral music, playing almost exclusively works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. He was not unusual in programming this music in the 1930s, since many pianists performed this repertoire; what was unusual was that Schnabel would not play anything else. Whereas a sonata by Beethoven or Brahms might constitute one part of a varied programme given by other pianists, Schnabel would not play virtuoso or overtly Romantic works at all. His recitals of Beethoven’s piano sonatas were always sold out, and continued to be talked about for generations; this is because of what he brought to the music of Beethoven. Schnabel somehow revealed the composer and his intentions without colouring the music with his own personality. He played with complete conviction in his belief of the integrity of the score and though his technique was sometimes unstable, like Cortot’s, it did not detract from the overall architecture of his interpretation.

Schnabel’s recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the first to be made, is still the benchmark by which all others are compared, and for many it remains the first choice. Schnabel recorded these, and the five piano concertos of Beethoven, between 1932 and 1935 for HMV. He was already fifty before his distrust of the recording studio was appeased by the fact that HMV would allow him to record the Beethoven sonatas complete. Of recording he stated, ‘One of the chief reasons for my refusal was that I did not like the idea of having no control over the behaviour of the people who listened to the 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 from the mid 1930s come excellent recordings of both Brahms’s piano concertos that he had performed with such success. He also recorded three of Mozart’s piano sonatas and three of the Schubert piano sonatas for HMV, giving masterly readings of the two last great sonatas D. 959 and D. 960. Schnabel also recorded five of Mozart’s piano concertos, the most notable being K. 491 in C minor where he plays his own extraordinarily incongruous cadenza. While in the United States, in 1942 he recorded for RCA works he had previously recorded for HMV including Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op. 109 and Op. 111 and the Piano Concertos Nos 4 and 5 with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Schnabel recorded a few works by Bach, including sober readings of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903, the Italian Concerto BWV 971 and two of the toccatas.

Very little chamber music from Schnabel’s repertoire was recorded, although he set down the Beethoven cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier and the Schubert Piano Quintet D. 667 ‘The Trout’. Quite a number of radio broadcasts have survived, some of the most interesting being a chamber music series broadcast by the BBC in 1947 where Schnabel was joined by violinist Joseph Szigeti and cellist Pierre Fournier in trios by Brahms, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

Schnabel’s final recordings for HMV made between 1947 and 1950 include introspective performances of Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K. 511. It is interesting to see that at a session in 1947 he recorded Weber’s ‘Aufforderung zum Tanz’, a recording that is rarely referred to yet contains elegant playing and a beautiful tone. Some of Schnabel’s final recordings were of Schubert’s impromptus and a prelude and fugue in D major by Bach.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).