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￼ARTUR 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 smile and 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 earlier career. It is claimed that his nerves and mistakes were left in the recording studio, and that he was a fine live performer. This can only be doubted. Maybe as a playful mock, Rachmaninov rheld Schnabel to be the “adagio player” par excellence. Certainly he was no pyrotechnic virtuoso.
Schnabel’s teacher from the age of seven was Theodor Leschetizky, artistic custodian to so many early twentieth century piano virtuosi, and he remarked famously that Schnabel was to be no great pianist, rather his calling was that of a musician; as a result Leschetizky allowed Schnabel to follow his nose and devote himself to the Viennese classical tradition, Brahms and Schumann too. After 1933 he honed this devotion at the expense of popular acclaim and the romantic warhorse composers were dropped from his concerts (although he had performed much Liszt and Chopin in his early career). Schnabel left Berlin as soon as the Nazis had seized power, and 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 Austrian, born in 1881); understandably he never returned after he lost his mother in a concentration camp (after the war he travelled to America and died in Switzerland in 1951).
Schnabel must have waxed his fingers as though skittles (look at them) and 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. Schnabel would not perhaps have succeeded as a pub pianist, his contrarian thought might have emptied the pub of custom. 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 was “no life without art, no art without life!” and in a sense this is redolent of Schnabel too, but again in a far more visceral manner than his lofty teacher. He looked less like a librarian and more like a publican. He was short, dour and portly, sporting always a ludicrous moustache and a cigar, a taste for late night pool, beer and mustard rolls; he was hardly a pinup boy of the classical music world. He is held to be serious minded, the intellectual who wrote footnotes to Beethoven’s scores, yet the high drama in his recordings was fuelled by passion; what he lacked in bravura he made up with bluster. He was as happy pouting footnotes and 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, doodling a vamp with the other. He was the perfect man 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 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.