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Artur Schnabel: Complete Piano Music / Jenny Lin

Release Date: 05/03/2019
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30074
Composer:  Artur Schnabel ,  Josef Strauss Performer:  Jenny Lin Number of Discs: 2

Artur Schnabel's piano works represent the major stages of his composing life, and are written for the instrument whose possibilities he knew best. Pianist Jenny Lin's traversal of this music, composed between 1898 and 1947, affords a view from the keyboard of a strikingly unique composer, who operated at the very highest level of his art.

R E V I E W:

Artur Schnabel’s modern, edgy compositions confused and alienated audiences during his lifetime. Used to his concert repertoire of mostly Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, which they loved, they never got used to his own music. Dmitri Mitropoulos’ broadcast of his first symphony with the Minneapolis Orchestra in December 1946 was such a resounding dud that even the audience
Read more in attendance barely applauded, and one of the commentators on YouTube noted, “Better remember Schnabel as a great pianist…not as a composer…”

But Schnabel was undeterred by negative reactions to his music throughout his life. In February of 1922, reacting to his wife’s letter about terrible reviews of his scores, he wrote:

I don’t “vie” for recognition, I want to compose, and I shall never, ever allow myself to be talked into believing that something is worthless if I alone derive pleasure from it, let alone of minor value because it makes “others” happy. People! Sheep! The reviews, which are incompetent know everything better, entertained me. Oh, if only I had the opportunity to sit down in front of blank music paper again. My only freedom! A companion you can’t disappoint.

My own reaction to his compositions is somewhat mixed. I really didn’t like the symphony at all, but some of his chamber works, particularly the Notturno for Contralto & Piano (written for his wife Therese, who was a singer), the Sonata for Solo Violin and his first String Quartet, I liked very much. Thus I was interested to hear his piano works as played here by Jenny Lin, whose playing I usually admire very much. I’ve previously praised her performances of Montsalvatge and Stravinsky in previous issues.

Perhaps it is Lin’s style, but I found myself enjoying his 3 Fantasy Pieces, a very early suite from 1898, very much indeed. Even at this early point, Schnabel was clearly more intrigued by modern trends in composition despite a slightly more Romantic bent to his music. You can’t really call his music Brahmsian; if anything, it sounds more influenced by Mussorgsky than Brahms or any other German composer of the time. For the work of a 16-year-old, it is surprisingly mature-sounding. The 3 Pieces of 1906, oddly enough, are more Brahmsian in their feeling and structure, and again Lin plays them with energy and sensitivity, although to my ears the opening “Rhapsodie” went on far too long and said very little. The more impressionistic “Nachtbild” is more interesting and this, too, has more of a Russian feel about it.

With the Dance Suite of 1920-21, we finally encounter Schnabel’s mature compositional style but, as James Irsay points out in his liner notes, “not yet his ‘final’ voice.” One immediately senses a rhythmically stronger and harmonically spikier approach while still, at times, retaining some of the lyricism of his earlier works. There’s a slight Stravinsky influence here, but only a little. Most of it sounds like no one else; the 15-minute waltz takes us through old Vienna with touches of new Vienna, an even more skewed version of Ravel’s La Valse. In the fourth piece, “Zweite rast,” we get a hint of things to come in the free-form introduction which, surprisingly, contains a Thelonious Monk-like chord in it (played twice, in fact). No. 5, “Auf Morgen,” is also a somewhat splintered tune. This, in particular, was to dominate his later style, and was what alienated audiences to his music. With an easier-to-follow top line, Schnabel’s music might have found more acceptance, but even to other pianists and conductors who were open to new music, Schnabel’s approach was too “fragmented.”

This is particularly apparent in his Piano Sonata of 1923, which is at last in his final style. Yes, there is considerable more dissonance in the music, but dissonance alone was not its biggest barrier to appreciation. It was the juxtaposition of themes that didn’t seem to fit together. It clearly precipitates much of the music of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Was it Schnabel’s fault that he was 35 years ahead of his time? Yet, again, what I hear in this performance is the operation of a superior musical mind at work, and in this case I don’t mean Schnabel, I mean Jenny Lin. Her clear perception of where this music started, where it is going and how it is to be phrased and structured have as much to do with one’s appreciation and even enjoyment of it as what Schnabel put into it. I’m not even sure that Schnabel himself could have played it any better than this. Although a superb musician, he was a technically faulty pianist, thus I can hear him occasionally smudging figures that emerge here clearly, such as the spiky third movement or the restless fifth and final movement. Lin remarkably pulls all of the disparate elements of this piece together like a master artist who encounters a broken mosaic yet instinctively knows how to put it back together again. She creates a magnificent musical edifice out of Schnabel’s most abrasive passages without softening their impact.

The Piece in 7 Movements dates from 1936-37, and here Schnabel is most definitely under the spell of the New Vienna School. The music is no longer expansive, but terse and resolutely atonal. Once again, Lin infuses the music with elegance and style without diluting the music’s visceral impact. Yet if the Piece in 7 Movements leans towards Schoenberg, the 7 Piano Pieces of 1947 are fully steeped in this style, and again it is to Lin’s credit that she is able to phrase this like music and not like a broken jigsaw puzzle. In her hands, the structural clarity of each piece emerges in its fullness.

We end this survey of Schnabel’s piano music with four very odd arrangements, from 1907, of waltzes by Josef Strauss, the brother of Johann II. Schnabel wrote them to bolster the piano parts of the originals, which were written for beginners to play in their homes for guests. For the curious, the waltzes he chose to arrange were Aquarellen (Watercolors), Frauenwürde (Women’s Dignity), Sternschnuppen (Shooting Stars) and Schwert und Leier (Sword and Lyre). Lin gives ‘em the full schmaltz treatment.

No two ways about it, this is a remarkable achievement and a boost to the reputation of Schnabel as a composer. Three cheers for Jenny Lin!

-- Lynn René Bayley, Art Music Lounge
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