Terry Teachout pays tribute to Artur Schnabel (April 17, 1882 â€“ August 15, 1951) in Commentary.
â€œYou will never be a pianist,â€ Theodor Leschetizky (sic), Schnabelâ€™s teacher, told him. â€œYou are a musician.â€ Schnabel modestly claimed not to have known what that meant, but of course he knew perfectly well, repeating the bon mot on numerous occasions. (Nobody ever accused him of insufficient self-regard.) From childhood on, his musical instincts had led him away from the splashy virtuosity of late-19th-century composers. He played Chopin and Liszt early in his careerâ€”very well, too, by most accountsâ€”but by the 20â€™s he had stopped programming their works. Instead, he played Mozartâ€™s piano music at a time when it was generally thought to be suitable only for young children, and Schubertâ€™s sonatas at a time when they were unknown to most pianists. As he later explained:
I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed. . . . Chopinâ€™s studies are lovely pieces, perfect pieces, but I simply canâ€™t spend time on them; I believe I know these pieces; but playing a Mozart sonata, I am not so sure that I do know it, inside and out. Therefore I can spend endless time on it.
The quality most immediately striking about Schnabelâ€™s styleâ€”and the one recognized at once by his most perceptive contemporaries â€”is its rhythmic vitality. Leon Fleisher, his best-known pupil, described it as follows:
There would be this schwung, an irresistible swing to what he did, as though he were twirling you around in a dance. . . . The emphasis was that beats were never downward events, they were not like fence posts or the hammering of coffin nailsâ€”beats were upward springs that would spring you on to the next beat.
The impulsive forward momentum of Schnabelâ€™s playingâ€”it was so pronounced that he had a lifelong tendency to rushâ€”helped ameliorate its other key feature. Like most Austro-German musicians of his generation, Schnabel used changes in tempo to delineate the structural features of the pieces he played, and his rhythmic flexibility was so pronounced that some musicians, Toscanini among them, felt that he slipped on occasion into outright exaggeration.
This latter quality is what Virgil Thomson had particularly in mind when he referred to the â€œlate-19th-century romanticismâ€ in Schnabelâ€™s style.
Schnabel was the first to record Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, a historic watershed for sound recordings. Later performances by other musicians are sometimes more perfectly polished, but Schnabel’s interpretations remain unsurpassed in warmth and musicality.
No performances of the Schubert piano sonatas come even close to Schnabel’s.
Hat tip to Bird Dog.