I finished listening to Artur Schnabel’s recording of Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas. No, it was not some macho thing where I did it in one sitting. Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to one or two sonatas a day, and the experience has a revelation.
Today, when there are dozens of complete recordings of these iconic works and with pianists rushing to recording them once they reached their 18th birthday, it is difficult to imagine the significance and impact those first recordings had.
In Harold Schonberg’s entertaining (but not always accurate) book, The Great Pianists, the writer devoted an entire chapter to Artur Schnabel (even Arthur Rubinstein had to share a chapter with his archrival and sometime friend Vladimir Horowitz), and entitled it “The Man Who Invented Beethoven.”
It took Schnabel several years, from 1931 to 1935, to record all the sonatas. Listening to them again today, the performances are, to me, just as valid, moving and, for lack of a better word, right. I once heard the comment that piano playing today has become either anonymous or idiosyncratic. Schnabel’s playing is neither. And hearing these recordings remind me how standardized, even generic, music making has become today.
Unlike other Beethoven “specialists” of his time, pianists like Wilhelm Backhaus, Rudolf Serkin, and Wilhelm Kempff, to name just a few, pianists who carry the torch of the Germanic tradition of piano playing, Schnabel never hesitated to take chances in his playing. In many of the faster movements, Schnabel played with an absolute feeling of reckless abandon, making the performance extremely thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, Schnabel was very much interested in the details, as well as the structural integrity of the music, but he was not an artist who saw only the trees and not the forest. It is music-making that was, and is, spontaneous and very much alive. Hearing these performances, I couldn’t help but feel that Beethoven himself must have played in a similar way.
Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings were made in the days when editing was not possible, and much has been made of Schnabel’s many wrong notes in his recordings (and in his live performances as well). Schnabel had as remarkable a technique as any of his colleagues, then and now, but he was simply not interested in merely playing all the correct notes.
Note-perfect performances, a norm in our times, can be detrimental to the recreation of great music. Pianist Murray Perahia reminds us that perfection is not only an impossible but dangerous pursuit.
In Arthur Rubinstein’s memoirs, My Many Years, the pianist was quite dismissive of Schnabel’s playing. This is unfortunate, because there are remarkable similarities between the playing of these two great artists – the same generous, unforced tone at the piano, and a remarkably similar approach to the score. It is interesting to note that the recordings of Rubinstein, the Romantic pianist par-excellence, sounds more restrained, even careful, and more “Classical”, in his Beethoven recordings than Schnabel, who is remembered as a great classicist. It reminds us once again that great artists can and should never be categorized. As much as Schnabel was a thinking pianist, he was after all a product of the 19th century. In his playing, he was not a rigid tempo player. He was never hesitant to give the music breathing space, or shifting the tempo within a movement. For me, Schnabel’s music-making is closer to that of a Fürtwangler than a Toscinini.
Today’s musicians – not just pianists - can do worse than to consult and enjoy Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings. It is not so much a matter of imitating the way he played, but it is a glimpse, a looking back, into a different approach to art, and to music.
More than just a historical document, Schnabel’s recording of the Beethoven sonatas – from the opening upward “rocket” motive in the F Minor sonata to the ethereal final pages of the C Minor, Op. 111 - is part of our heritage as musicians, not to mention some of the most exalted and inspired music-making ever put on vinyl.