P1339. ARTUR SCHNABEL: Rhapsody in g; Intermezzo in a; Intermezzo in E-flat; w. Adrian Boult Cond. BBC S.O.: Piano Concerto #2 in B-flat (all Brahms). [Another magisterial issue, the Concerto taken from pristine 'z' shellac pressings with bright, glassy surfaces in stunning sound!] (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-958, recorded 1947 & 1935. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“For someone like me who admires this historical recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, there is bound to be blowback about Artur Schnabel’s less-than-virtuosic technique. The importance of flawless execution in piano playing will never be a settled matter. The most famous line about Schnabel is that he was a musician first and a pianist second. But in an age of prodigious technical prowess, that compliment also implied a deficiency in his execution. (A much-repeated quip has Moritz Rosenthal being informed that Schnabel had failed his army physical. ‘What do you expect?’ Rosenthal said, ‘No fingers!’ The same anecdote is told with different pianists in place of Rosenthal and Schnabel.)
Many collectors will already have a fixed opinion about Schnabel’s Brahms Second, and mine is strongly positive. I have no trouble listening through a few clinkers, blurred passagework, and various flaws that madden other listeners. Schnabel and Boult, recorded in London in 1935, are fired up by the music nearly to the same intensity as the famous collaboration between Horowitz and Toscanini from Carnegie Hall in 1940; even the timings for each movement are quite close. Anyone who wants technical brilliance knows which of the two accounts he will prefer, and by a considerable margin, I imagine. The concerto occupied multiple 78rpm sides, which gave Schnabel the opportunity for rest and retakes, so one shouldn’t exaggerate his technical deficiencies.
Schnabel’s musicality goes without saying, but there are a few idiosyncrasies here. The beginning of the first movement where orchestra and piano exchange phrases starts at a tempo in accord with Brahms’s marking of Allegro non troppo, but things drastically speed up thereafter, and there are solo entries where Schnabel presses to go even faster, not entirely with the conductor’s agreement. The Scherzo goes well, minus any glaring flaws, and the slow movement is taken as a fairly quick Andante, not a lingering Adagio as is so often the case. The solo playing is quite powerful. Together Schnabel and Boult shape the finale for momentum and strength, saving it from seeming anticlimactic.
This performance has been remastered and reissued many times on diverse labels, but Yves St. Laurent’s work is exceptional. The source is given as a U.S. pressing, Victor M 305 [from pristine 'z' shellac pressings]. Compared with an EMI version and another on Naxos Historical, YSL’s sound is greatly superior for its quiet surfaces, full dynamic range, lack of distortion, and instrumental color. I doubt that the material could be remastered better. The piano is quite prominent, but the BBC Symphony isn’t so recessed as to seem unnatural, and the strings in particular seem full and lifelike. All the registers of the piano are well balanced, with a noticeable but not annoying emphasis on the left hand. The sound from disc to disc is also remarkably consistent, and joins are smoothly handled.
As a filler we get three solo pieces, a Rhapsody and two Intermezzi, from 1947. One immediately notices that the piano sounds fuller and brighter than it did in the concerto, where the piano is a bit boxy and wooden by comparison. On the other hand, there is considerable grittiness from surface noise in the incidental works. Schnabel’s readings are lovely but not, I’d say, revelatory. The main event is certainly the concerto, and I found it a wonderful listening experience. This release is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in Schnabel’s enduring artistry.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“While the pianist Artur Schnabel is also remembered as teacher and composer, chamber music was the distinguishing work of his musical life. His wife, the singer Theresa Behr, had a profound influence on his music-making….Schnabel had been chosen to organize a Brahms festival in Berlin in 1933, to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth. He wrote: ‘We had agreed that all the chamber music works with piano which Brahms had written would be performed in the festival by Huberman, Hindemith, Piatigorsky and me. Now, when Hitler came to power, we knew, of course, that the Brahms Festival, if held at all, would certainly not include us as performers….In May 1933 I played at the Brahms Festival in Vienna. I mentioned that my participation in the Brahms Festival in Berlin had been cancelled. So Vienna, at that time not yet incorporated into Germany but independent, engaged us for their festival instead. We played Brahms’ trios and quartets - Huberman, Hindemith, Casals, and I. I also played the B-flat major Concerto, with Furtwängler conducting. Performances went very well and we had great fun and pleasure at our rehearsals, with plenty of time’.
With Europe’s fall to totalitarianism, musical life became drastically reduced as many artists sought refuge in America. It was not until a unique series of events in 1947 that Schnabel was able briefly to revive the grand European chamber music tradition so characteristic of the years before fascism. He assembled a group to perform in England and on the continent….”
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011