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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (Schnabel) (1933)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827):
Piano Concertos No 3 in C minor and No 4 in G major
She died of cancer on Christmas Day 1931 and gradually faded into obscurity, but Elizabeth Teresa Frances Courtauld, wife of the textile millionaire and art collector Samuel Courtauld, whose name continues to live through the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House, both in London, deserves a place in musical history. Lil Courtauld, as she was known, had an intense love of music that she put to good use. In 1929 she founded a series of highly successful concerts that, for their day, were remarkably different, and the original idea came from Artur Schnabel.
The coincidences were equally remarkable. Schnabel, who was born on 17th April 1882 in Lipnik, a small town in Austrian Silesia that is now a part of Poland, and the Courtaulds had become friends when they first met in 1927. This was also the year of the Beethoven Centenary, and in Berlin Schnabel marked the occasion by playing all 32 piano sonatas in a series of seven programmes. This was no a gala occasion, however, as the recitals were held on consecutive Sundays in a venue that was far from fashionable, the hall of the Volksbühne, a workers organization that furthered the cause of music by offering tickets at token prices through successful block-booking arrangements. Schnabel, who refused to pander to popular taste and who treated all his audiences alike in terms of the music he played, must have been gratified that two thousand people attended each performance; and the critics acclaimed the cycle as the highlight of the season.
"Why not start something of the same kind here," he suggested to Lil Courtauld. She did, with only the help of a capable secretary, Cicely Stanhope, and what came to be known as the Courtauld-Sargent concerts at the Queens Hall, began with Schnabel as featured soloist and Malcolm Sargent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The events expanded audiences because they offered music at substantially reduced rates. There was no state patronage, however, and the scheme was private, subsidized largely by Samuel Courtauld himself, his reason for doing so easily understandable. Courtauld (1876-1947), said to have been shy and introspective, was a Unitarian, a member of a Christian organization formed in the seventeenth century that was dedicated to the principles of democracy, reform and social responsibility. He continued with what his wife had inaugurated, and the concerts ran to a total of 132, ending in 1940.
Lil Courtauld did not live to experience the flowering of her ideas, or the politics that inevitably crept in, or the sniping by critics at Schnabels exposure in all-concerto concerts, a policy that Courtauld eventually insisted should be changed, nor did she see Schabels growing reputation that prompted him to play the Beethoven sonata cycle in London in 1932. She missed, too, the most far-reaching offshoot of her endeavours, Schnabels decision to accept the offer of HMV to record all Beethovens sonatas and concertos. As complete sets, they were the first ever.
Schnabel was now fifty and unlike his near-contemporary Wilhelm Backhaus, who enthusiastically welcomed the gramophone and had been making records since 1908, was deeply suspicious of the process of music reproduction. In his own words he "felt that recordings are against the very nature of performance, for the nature of performance is to happen but once, to be absolutely ephemeral and unrepeatable". That he relented and even came to value recordings is entirely owing to a diminutive, dynamic American at HMV who, in 1902, signed up Caruso in disregard of orders from the directors of the company and kept his job. He was Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951) and he continues the story:
"One of the wisest and most remarkable artistic enterprises of the thirties was the engagement of Artur Schnabel in England as the executant of Beethovens piano works complete. His success in London was immediate and he collected a big following of enthusiasts who regarded him as the greatest living exponent of Beethoven. I was agreeably surprised at the serious-minded crowds that filled the Queens Hall to capacity and would follow his playing with weighty tomes of the Sonatas propped on their knees. It was given out that Schnabel would never stoop to recording as he considered it impossible for a mere machine to reproduce the dynamics of his playing faithfully. Therefore when I interviewed him, he was coy but all the same prepared to put his theory to the test though he would need a lot of convincing. At long last I was able to overcome all his prejudice. Tempted by a nice fat guarantee, he eventually agreed that it was possible to reconcile his ideals with machinery".
In mid-January 1932, Schnabel played a recital in memory of Lil Courtauld, and the next day he "put his theory to the test" at HMV. Apparently he was not entirely satisfied with the initial outcome but had agreed to show good will, and the results comprised some of the epoch-making recordings of the twentieth century. The present two concertos, set down thirteen months after Schnabel first stepped into a studio, are disparate enough in mood to show how this artist adapted his range of expression to suit his definition of content. His feelings about these works may be deduced by comments he made in the United States where he lived from 1939 to 1946.
"During my educational phase in Vienna until 1899
..in this most musical city on earth
..the G major Concerto by Beethoven was generally labelled as the ladies concerto. Hardly any of the great pianists ever played it. The C minor concerto was only played in conservatories by the lower grades".
Seemingly the Viennese musical establishment of the day took a derogatory view of these works; and if we read Schnabel accurately, he deplored its opinions, the implications of which are distinctly odd. The Third Concerto is no more an academic piece than the Fourth is small scale and Schnabel set out to prove that. He may not have been the first to do so on record (there are earlier, and long deleted, recordings of these works, by William Murdoch and York Bowen respectively) but it would be fair to say that his interpretations have had the most lasting impact because they had the widest circulation at the time. Nor, in subsequent years, have record companies neglected to keep them before the public. By revealing both structural strength and lyricism in the music, Schnabel has had a continuing influence on a host of pianists, even though ideas about presenting these qualities continue to evolve, as indeed they must.
Those hearing Schnabel for the first time may find aspects of his style somewhat disconcerting. He lengthened or foreshortened phrases at will and he varied the pulse, sometimes restlessly, particularly in fast movements. It was a personal form of expression, his musical hallmark so to speak, but the large fluctuations of speed in parts of the first movement of the Third Concerto are unusual, and they need to be understood in context. The scores available then had the wrong time signature. Alfred Brendel believes that this misdeed, as he calls it, originated from Gustav Nottebohm and Carl Reinecke, who were responsible for the first complete edition. Their marking indicated a tempo double that which was required to make sense of the way the music is laid out. Intuitively, Schnabel and Sargent must have realised the error because the pacing of the orchestral introduction and the pianists initial contributions is moderate, but in the absence of official confirmation for this speed, which was not available until Beethovens autograph manuscript was rediscovered many years after the last war, Schnabels hurrying at later stages suggests a conflict between what he instinctively felt was right and what he was led to believe the composer wanted.
If an evenly flowing rhythmic continuity was not always Schnabels way with music, he could still portray a cosmic view of whatever piece, small or large, that he chose to play. Central to his make-up was an ability to find a sense of spirituality and repose in slow movements that few have been able to equal. Idiosyncratic he certainly was, and though his later recordings of these concertos show some modifications in his ideas, there are no significant changes in execution. Schnabel stayed Schnabel, though, arguably, he was more daring in these 1930s performances. Yet, fifty years after his death at Axenstein in Switzerland on 15th August 1951 there is nothing about his musicianship that is dated. For reasons that are not fathomable, it remains uncannily timeless.