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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 / Cello Sonata No. 2 (Schnabel) (1932)
Schnabel records "THE EMPEROR"
Beethovens "Emperor" Concerto is among that select company of masterpieces which have succeeded in capturing the fancy of the layman while retaining the reverence of the expert.
Probably it achieves this by its quality of immense significance: the whole work seems big with fate pregnant with mighty meaning. Rightly it is named "The Emperor" for nowhere is the master found in more majestic mood. We are reminded of one of Napoleons bulletins from the battlefield those long rolling periods and sonorous phrases surely find an echo in this tremendous music. Such a work, we feel, demands an artist to interpret it, but an artist who is prepared entirely to sink his own individuality to use his genius wholly in expressing what Beethoven has to say to us. No one who hears these records will doubt that Artur Schnabel has succeeded in this to a supreme degree. His depth of perception is astonishing; to realise it one has only to hear the famous passage, which concludes the slow, profoundly moving second movement and leads on to the terrific rush and fervour of the third. That breathless hush, in which the music seems lulled to sleep by its own beauty, but in which we remain held in suspense, gripped in anticipation of something which must inevitably follow
Schnabels faultless execution and perfect modelling of phrases go for granted we expect them, but few would expect such profound understanding as this, such rightness of approach, such vitality and intensity of touch. The recording is beyond criticism and this Concerto, as a whole, undoubtedly forms one of the most important events in the history of gramophone recording.
No, Naxos didnt write this. HMV did, for their advertisement in The Gramophone, July 1932. But the company wasnt publicising a pioneering event. That had taken place 10 years earlier when Frederic Lamond made an acoustic recording of this concerto. And HMV had another first too under its belt the first electrical recording of the same work, by Wilhelm Backhaus in 1927.
So why was this new version different? In a word, it was Schnabel. He was the star. His popularity was probably at its peak and capitalising on that the 5 discs cost of 30s (£1.50) was commercially sensible. Schnabel (1882-1951) had played in London before but his presence in the 1930s had become special thanks to a series of concerts inaugurated in 1929 by Lil Courtauld, wife of textile millionaire and art collector, Samuel Courtauld.
Sponsoring music was nothing new to this remarkable couple. They rescued the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the mid-1920s, and singers like Lotte Lehmann, Frieda Leider, Lauritz Melchoir, Friedrich Schorr, Elizabeth Schumann appeared there. So did Bruno Walter and his conducting of Fidelio, Don Giovanni, Der Rosenkavalier was considered memorable. But running an opera house then was probably as difficult as it is now, and the Courtaulds withdrew their support after three seasons. Schnabel suggested another musical cause; and it became the Courtauld-Sargent concerts at the Queens Hall with Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) as principal conductor.
They were concerts with a difference; tickets were available at cut prices because Lil Courtauld wanted everybody, not just "a fashionable audience", to listen to music. The timing could not have been better. Britain was close to a long period of economic depression that would be triggered off by the Wall Street crash. Unemployment had begun to rise (there were 3 million out of work by the end of 1932) and spending power faltered. So when the best seats normally costing 13s 6d (67.5p) each were offered at 10s (50p) and the cheapest dropped from 2s 4d (11.7p) to 1s 6d (7.5p), people arrived in very large numbers. The scheme was subsidised mainly by Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) who continued with the concerts after Lil Courtauld died of cancer on Christmas Day 1931. They ran to a total of 132, ending in 1940 and every event was sold out.
Schnabel was a regular soloist, sometimes in three concertos per programme, but what probably clinched his reputation was his performance of all the Beethoven sonatas at the Queens Hall in 1932. Press and audiences alike labelled him as the greatest living exponent of these works; and the obvious step was to record his interpretations. There was a snag. Schnabel was dead against the whole process of music reproduction, and one of his reasons is comically antiquated:
"I did not like the idea of having no control over the behaviour of the people who listened to music which I performed not knowing how they would be dressed, what else they would be doing at the same time, how much they would listen".
He hadnt reckoned on Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951), a tireless and visionary producer with HMV who refused to take no for an answer. Schnabel eventually capitulated but he did so on condition that not only the sonatas but also the concertos should be recorded complete. But what do you make of the hype that heralded the appearance of the Emperor?
The title is widely used. Though it is not Beethovens title, he may not have objected because he had called the work a Grand Concerto in a letter to his publisher. But the comparison with Napoleons bulletins would have enraged him. He had little time for emperors as rulers, particularly in 1809 when this concerto was being written. Napoleon, who had crowned himself Emperor, invaded Vienna. Guns pounded the city and the composer was driven away from his own home by noise and smoke, to seek refuge in the cellar of a friends house. Of course, there are some truths about Schnabel. His depth of perception is astonishing, as are his profound understanding, intensity of touch and rightness of approach. But he never sank individuality. No artist can, and he would have had greater difficulty in doing so. Schnabels motto was safety last and some of his playing could be deemed reckless. The quality of his musicianship nevertheless reflected the risks he took to convey what he believed to be artistically right. He was singular but he was also convincing.
Schnabel was 50 when he began recording, and in a 15-year span he concentrated on concertos there were two more recordings of the Emperor and solo piano works. But some chamber music also made it to the studio, among which were four of Beethovens cello sonatas. The First (Op 5 No 1) was omitted, and the last three were recorded with Pierre Fournier. They have made regular reappearances but the Second, with Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976), hasnt had as much exposure.
Piatigorsky and Carl Flesch (violin) were members of Schnabels Piano Trio formed in Berlin in 1930. That same year they played in the Courtauld-Sargent concerts but HMV made no recordings. This performance of the cello sonata is, therefore, the only one that gives some idea of how Schnabel interacted with his partners. He had met Piatigorsky in the early 1920s, a young Russian émigré (said to have been smuggled out but robbed of money and possessions) whom he described as "absolutely unknown, was living in an unheated attic in the cold winter, and was undernourished". Not for long. Piatigorskys contribution in a performance of Schönbergs Pierrot lunaire was so impressive that in 1924, he was appointed principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Fürtwangler; and he stayed for four years until solo commitments demanded more of his time.
"He was certainly the best cellist I had heard since Casals," said Arthur Rubinstein after a concert in Warsaw in 1931. Many years later, Piatigorsky joined Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz to become a member of another trio, based in Los Angeles where they were all living. Fortunately, there are recordings of this group, as are of the next venture founded in 1961 the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts in which other fine artists like Jacob Lateiner (piano) and William Primrose (viola) also took part. Today, though, Piatigorsky is largely remembered for being the dedicatee of Waltons Cello Concerto that he premièred in 1957.
It wasnt the first time that Piatigorskys gifts had been recognised in this way. Schnabel had also written him a piece a Sonata for Cello Solo in 1931. But this recording of Beethoven seems to be a lone memento of their one-time collaboration. Piatigorsky didnt acquire the sort of public status that Schnabel did, but his musical ethic "One must live for something greater than oneself an ideal, a dream to be a good servant of art" would have had Schnabels wholehearted approval.