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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 S:

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
Read more the audience 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

The great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel, like many of his pianistic predecessors but few of his successors, was also a composer. He wrote music in many genres, including three symphonies. His string quartets have been recorded from time to time, but this may be the first survey of his piano music. Pianist Jenny Lin does well to identify this lacuna, for arguably Schnabel's piano music reflects his personality as a performer better than does his music in other genres. It has a combination of down-to-earth rhythmic sense, seeming spontaneity (aptly described by annotator James Irsay as "a spontaneity that was the result of long and meticulous planning"), and considerable complexity of thought. The works span Schnabel's life: from his teenage years in the Three Fantasy Pieces of 1898 to the Seven Piano Pieces of 1947, four years before Schnabel's death. Naturally enough, they range from late Romantic styles at the beginning to near 12-tone music (his procedures are never strict) in the later works; the Seven Piano Pieces are miniatures that show the influence of Webern. The music is much better than might be indicated by the comment of Toscanini when he met Schnabel: "Are you really the same Schnabel who wrote that horrible music I heard ten years ago in Venice?" It may not be quite on the level Irsay's cheerleading would indicate (contemporary reviewers, who certainly knew their Schoenberg, were mixed), but it is attractively evocative. Sample the five-movement Dance Suite, which, although quite dissonant, convincingly depicts a developing romance between two of Schnabel's (eventually married) friends. The central waltz spills over its boundaries and goes on for 14 and a half minutes as it embodies the point where things really got cooking. Lin is a fine pianist technically, and she grasps the thread of personality connecting these works. With beautiful sound from Steinway Hall in New York, this is a recommended release, especially for Schnabel fans.

-- AllMusic Guide

There’s a fascinating 2018 documentary, No Place of Exile, on the life of Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), the famous pianist whose 1930’s recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas became legendary. In the documentary, contemporary German pianist Igor Levit pays tribute to Schnabel’s musical legacy, “For me, Artur Schnabel has been one of the most important pianistic and musical figures since my childhood. No one has played Beethoven with such inspired, witty, deep and fun way as Arthur Schnabel in the 1930s.”

It turns out that Schnabel was also a prolific composer. His output includes a wide variety of chamber music, songs, three symphonies and the piano music on this disc. While Schnabel’s reputation as a pianist rests on his interpretation of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, his compositions inhabit the musical world of the early 20th century. He thought of himself first as a composer and second as a pianist. He never let public opinion of his music inhibit his compositional freedom. Schnabel’s response to critical rejection of a performance of his 1920-21 Dance Suite by pianist Eduard Erdmann was, “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.”

The music on this disc covers almost 50 years of his composing life. The Three Fantasy Pieces of 1898 was composed as a sixteen year old piano student of Theodor Leschetizky, who awarded him a prize in a contest of the teacher’s students. It’s a delight, with a “Little Waltz” a nod to his love for the Viennese three step. Three Piano Pieces (1906) begins with a melodically flowing Brahmsian “Rhapsodie.” “Night Picture” is darker, but pensive and moving. “Waltzes” are enjoyable and entertaining. Any lover of Romantic piano music would enjoy these early pieces.

Dance Suite describes the course of the relationship of two of Schnabel’s friends. A “Fox-Trot” describes the encounter with humor and propriety. “First Pause” is short and hesitant. “Waltz” moves the relationship into love. The music is more extended (almost 15 minutes), and complex. It’s a challenging new sound world for Schnabel. In “Second Pause,” Schnabel omits bar lines, making it “relaxed, dreaming about dance and love.” It’s a reverie that questions ‘falling in love.’ “Towards Tomorrow” is an Ivesian romp—an exuberant answer to commitment and marriage.

Disc 2 is the modern Schnabel that not everyone understood or appreciated. Of the 1923 Piano Sonata, Arturo Toscanini exclaimed, “Tell me, are you really the same Schnabel who wrote that horrible music I heard ten years ago in Venice?” The opening of this work, with its spiky thick dissonant chords announce that Schnabel has entered the musical world of the radical 1920’s. What follows are movements of tender, soft eighth notes, and a “Cheerful, impish, cheeky, somewhat obstinate” section that uses twelve-tone motives. A sedate, ethereal movement becomes a dreamy reverie and the work ends in a “fiery, bold and unrelenting” statement. At the premiere, two musicians yelled, ‘Allora basta’ (‘that’s enough’) during the last movement.

It was fourteen years before Schnabel wrote another piano work, Piece in Seven Movements (1936-7). It’s dedicated to his friend and benefactor, Mary Virginia Foreman (1908-2012) who established the Schnabel Music Foundation, which sustained his legacy. There’s a welcome clarity of line and efficiency in these movements. Especially memorable is a brief shimmering, sensual “Allegretto placevole,” the clever and brilliant central “Allegretto agitato,” and the mercurial and propulsive waltz that ends the work. Seven Piano Pieces (1947) are even sparer in texture and melody. Almost impressionistic in nature, they wander sensually until the “Agitato” and “Vivace” breaks the atonal trance. The disc ends with Schnabel’s arrangement of “Four Waltzes from Old Vienna” by Joseph Strauss.

Kudos to Jenny Lin, a superb pianist, and the realistic Steinway sound for another example of a stimulating piano program. These are two very different discs that trace the compositional journey of Artur Schnabel, one of the great pianists.

-- Robert Moon, Audiophile Audition

Until recently, my experience of Artur Schnabel as composer was limited to the stylistic disconnect of the cadenzas to his Mozart concertos, with one exception. Almost 20 years to the day after his death, a group of his pupils gathered in New York for a memorial concert at Lincoln Center. Helen and Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Claude Frank, Frank Glazer, Lili Kraus, Tung Kwong-Kwong, Eunice Norton and Beveridge Webster played concertos for two and three pianos by Bach and Mozart. Leon Fleisher conducted Schnabel’s Duodecimet for mixed chamber ensemble, a late piece that, to my teenage ears, sounded so difficult as to be virtually impenetrable.

Thanks to the intrepid Jenny Lin, we now have an overview of Schnabel’s piano music. Lin’s artistry is informed by a curiosity as voracious as it is insatiable. She is also a pianist of the first calibre, with a rock-solid, multivalent technique that serves a richly cultivated imagination. Who knows? She may be just the person to rescue Schnabel’s piano music from the obscurity in which it has languished, virtually since its creation. How could a performer as forward-thinking, perceptive, provocative and widely influential as Schnabel fail to be interesting as a composer as well?

If the earlier works, those up to about 1920, suggest no new paths, they are nevertheless charmingly ingratiating and idiomatically conceived for the instrument. Three Fantasy Pieces, Schnabel’s first published music, originated while he was still a pupil of Leschetizky, to whom they are dedicated. Along with the Three Piano Pieces, Op 15, composed eight years later, they are strongly influenced by Brahms, though a droll sense of humour marks them as uniquely Schnabel’s own.

Things start to get really interesting with the Dance Suite (1921) and the formidable Sonata (1923). Although all five movements of the Sonata are composed without bar lines, indications for tempo, dynamics and expression are abundant (and will surprise no one with a nodding acquaintance of Schnabel’s edition of the Beethoven sonatas). Its advanced harmonic language and strong expressive power suggest that it may be, of all these works, most worthy of revival. Piece in Seven Movements from the mid-1930s and the 1947 Seven Piano Pieces advance and extend the abstract expressionist frontiers of the Sonata.

Of course, a full-scale revaluation of Schnabel’s creative output presupposes familiarity with all his music. And there’s a great deal of it – three symphonies, other orchestral works including a piano concerto, five string quartets, a piano quintet, a piano trio, a string trio, a sonata for violin and piano, two solo sonatas, one each for violin and cello, and many highly effective songs. Lin’s imaginative interpretations make a strong case for the continued viability of Schnabel’s music for the instrument he understood so well.

-- Patrick Rucker, Gramophone
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