The Albion Beatnik Bookstore website (or how to change a light bulb in a tight space on a ladder)

The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore, based once in Oxford, then Sibiu, always neo-bankrupt, now closed for business: atavistic and very analogue, its musings and misspells on books and stuff.

Artur Schnabel: All Gas & Gaiters, Skittles & Bluster

ArturSchnabelARTUR SCHNABEL’s memory lapses in performance were legendary and he remained seemingly impervious to any embarrassment in concert; like a car driver never tempted to look in his rear view mirror to note the damage that had been caused, any deviation was thrown off with a shrug. Schnabel’s technique somehow never came out in the wash either. Some claim that he performed in public with aplomb, especially in his early career, and that his nerves and mistakes were left in the recording studio. This can only be doubted. Maybe as a playful mock, Rachmaninov held Schnabel to be the “adagio player” par excellence. Certainly he was no pyrotechnic virtuoso, as can be heard on his recordings so often.

Schnabel’s childhood teacher was Theodor Leschetizky, artistic custodian to so many early twentieth century piano virtuosi; Leschetizky predicted that Schnabel was to be no great pianist, rather his calling was that of a musician. Leschetizky allowed Schnabel to follow his instinct and devote himself to the Viennese classical tradition, Brahms and Schumann too. After 1933 Schnabel honed this devotion at the expense of popular acclaim, and romantic warhorse composers were dropped from his concerts (he had performed much Liszt and Chopin in his early career. It has been suggested that his focus on Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert was driven by an emotional need to stay close to his Germanic roots: he was in fact Austrian, born in 1881. Schnabel had left Berlin as soon as the Nazis had seized and he lost his mother in a concentration camp; he was never to return.Aafter the war he travelled to America and died in Switzerland in 1951.

hands-schnabelPhotographs of his hands suggest they were of translucent, lunar hue with craters defined by ridged veins. Short and stubby, Schnabel might have waxed his fingers as though skittles. He played the piano as though they were ten-pins, prone to clumsy mishap and to being toppled. But he is held to have thrown his skittle balls from the highest intellectual eyrie. Theoretically his playing was reluctant to admit noise and he attempted to distill his music to the cerebral before the actual: “the pauses between the notes,” he said, “…that is where the art resides” – that’s clever innit? Leon Fleischer remarked that whenever Schnabel’s fingers touched the keyboard, it was a “kind of life-transformative experience.” But Schnabel was far more earthy than this. Leschetizky’s motto had been “no life without art, no art without life!” and iii it is redolent of Schnabel too, then in a far more visceral manner than with his lofty teacher. He looked less like a librarian and more like a publican. He was short, dour and portly, sporting always what seems now to be a ludicrous moustache, often a cigar, and he had a taste for late night pool, beer and mustard rolls; he was hardly a pinup boy of the classical music world. But as a pub pianist he would not have succeeded. His contrarian thought might well have emptied the pub of custom. With his music he was highbrow, the intellectual who wrote footnotes to editions of Beethoven. Yet in his own playing, heady, high drama was fuelled by passion; what he lacked in bravura he made up with bluster. He was as happy pouting footnotes and to be seen earnestly draped over a score in photographs, yet he could be found after hours with a barmaid on his knee, a cigar in one hand and doodling a vamp with the other. And these are the qualities that meant he was all but perfect to interpret Schubert. Schubert had mixed popular song of the dance halls and the ländler of folkish Austria with a purposeful mindfulness and a musical concordance. Schnabel was obsessed with the composer’s text and its integrity, yet his own interpretation was far from cast to the shadows, it is centre stage and somehow it got in the way of all his mental acrobatics. Thankfully: it’s why we listen to him still today. When listening to him one could “always distinguish between Beethoven and Schnabel,” said Fleischer, and this is the ultimate accolade for a pianist.

For me it is Schubert that allows Schnabel to breathe pure oxygen, his playful Impromptus and Moments Musicaux the apogee of recorded sound, studied and deliberate, yet skittish and at times alarmingly clumsy, so often at loggerheads with the obvious. They are collectively varied in tonal effect – No.1 of the Moments Musicaux as rumpy-pumpy as The Archers theme music when it is played delicately by so many others, No.6 as delicate and refined as a knitted lace table cloth, No.4 as a knitting machine with a bombarde organ pedal. Yet Schnabel is feted more for his Beethoven, whose modern incarnation he sort of invented, not single-handedly of course, but he championed Beethoven before he became a mainstay of the repertoire (also Schubert), and his HMV recordings between 1931 and 1935 comprise the first complete cycle of the sonatas. His Beethoven remains incomparable to this day, although Barenboim for sure has matched the tunnel visioned clarity its understanding of the classical sonata form offers. But Schnabel’s Beethoven was far less consistent than Barenboim’s or any of the other greats, and this attaches an endearment or a touch of the human to his recordings, though certainly no sentimentality. Peculiarly his recordings and the published edition of the Beethoven sonatas he annotated and published in the mid-1920s are so delightfully asunder that they suggest perhaps that he had intellectual intent but little resolve; his recordings show that even linked reference points within a single movement belie often any uniformity, his playing was spontaneous. He might have been the sort of father who would chastise his children for eating sweets, confiscate the packet but scoff its contents when alone. His version of the Waldstein sonata is like opening French windows in an airless room on a breezy summer’s day. I adore too his recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, like a runaway train: his passion corners the track at various speeds, each speed well beyond any concern for health and safety, the flurry of fluffed notes in the last movement a hoot. The train Schnabel stokes is late leaving the station and is rarely to make all its scheduled stops, but the view is panoramic and you never need to strain your neck to catch a glimpse of it, most noteworthy in the challenging late sonatas. Today it is Schnabel’s musical architecture that is celebrated still, his technique passed over: he is like a detailed Ordnance Survey map in musical motion. And if the train journey Schnabel tends is bumpy, you still alight wishing always you have a ticket for the return journey, a safety harness never wanted.



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