SCHNABEL: 3 Fantasy Pieces. 3 Pieces, Op. 15. Dance Suite. Sonata. Piece in 7 Movements. 7 Piano Pieces. J. STRAUSS: 4 Waltzes from Old Vienna (arr. Schnabel) / Jenny Lin, pno / Steinway & Sons 30074
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 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! Happily, I was able to contact her and, despite her busy schedule, get her to answer a few questions in connection with this important release. I think my readers will appreciate them.
Art Music Lounge: First of all, I suppose the main thing that people would like to know are how you came across Schnabel’s piano music and then how you managed to convince Steinway & Sons to record it?
Jenny Lin: I had a meeting at Peermusic, the publisher for Schnabel’s music, for something completely different. On the desk at Peermusic was a pile of sheet music by Arthur Schnabel. I asked if this was from THE “Artur Schnabel,” the reply was yes, and they gave me all of his piano music to take home. I read through them and felt that it was absolutely necessary that I record them. There are separate recordings of his Piano works, but never the complete. It didn’t take a lot of convincing, as this was an important project and has never been done as a complete set.
AML: What impressed me, coming to his complete oeuvre for piano for the first time, was not the fact that he evolved as a composer—that was a given—but how good those early compositions were. Some of them don’t really sound like anyone else’s music. Did you notice that when you were studying them?
JL: I was fascinated and impressed by the wide range of styles. Because he was such a great pianist, it was natural that these early works were so good. I was immediately taken by the early works. The music is very vocal, very human. He evolved very quickly into different styles – he obviously knew all the keyboard repertoire very well, including the most modern music of the time – even though he did not perform contemporary music in concert.
AML: Judging from what you might call the arc of avant-garde European composition of the early 20th century, it sounded to me as if Schnabel absorbed his surrounding influences over a certain span of time and then created music based on what had come a few years earlier. What I mean by that is, for instance, that his “Dance Suite” of 1920 sounds like some of the experimental music of about a decade earlier, ditto the Piano Sonata of 1923, and that it wasn’t until the 1940s that he really seemed to embrace the dodecaphonic school wholeheartedly. Do you think that, perhaps, his busy schedule as a performer slowed his compositional pace somewhat? Or do you think that he himself had to ponder and decide how much, if any, of the modern music trends he wished to incorporate?
JL: From his letters, and conversations with his granddaughter Ann Schnabel Mottier, Artur Schnabel often spoke about how he was the happiest when he was composing. The freedom and satisfaction he felt when he was writing music. If he had a choice, I am certain he would stop performing and just focus on composing altogether. Though at the same time, perhaps because he didn’t have to rely on composing for a living, he was able to write what he wanted, embracing everything he heard and knew during those years.
AML: Considering the fact that he was writing for his own instrument, were you a little surprised that there was only one Piano Sonata? I know I was.
JL: I didn’t really think about the fact that there was only one Piano Sonata since this one is so big – 5 movements and half hour long – one thinks of Liszt Sonata (or even Dutilleux Sonata) – but yes, it would have been interesting to have another Piano Sonata by him!
AML: Regarding your performances, as I mentioned a few times in the course of the review, I firmly believe that the positive impact of this music is largely due to your grasp of style and phrasing, yet your pianistic approach is different from Schnabel’s own. Although I love his recordings of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, his own style tended to be, shall we say, more percussive and less legato than yours, with very strong accents. On the other hand, your approach was very close to that of his daughter-in-law Helen, who recorded his 1901 piano concerto with F. Charles Adler conducting. How did you feel, personally, about this approach to phrasing?
JL: Thank you for your kind comments – I did listen to Helen’s recordings. I wish there was a recording of Schnabel himself playing his own music. That would have helped me tremendously and most likely answered many questions I had. He was extremely detailed and meticulous in his scores. He marked everything – tempi, pedaling, articulation, dynamics, rubato – EVERYTHING. It was overwhelming, especially visually. But slowly one begins to understand what he wanted, and a lot has to do with phrasing, to make sense of the structure of this music that is extremely complicated and dense.
AML: And now, I guess, for the million-dollar question. Why, in this day and age, aren’t Schnabel’s compositions better known and more widely played? So much of his work was of such a high quality and so brilliant and inspired that, for the life of me, I can’t understand why he’s still ignored. His aesthetics were clearly in line with that of many of today’s composers. What are your thoughts on this?
JL: I think a lot of it has to do with Schnabel himself never performing or promoting his own music. He didn’t care about this. I suspect there was not a lot of access before. Finally now, thanks to the Schnabel Music Foundation, founded by his granddaughter Ann and her husband François Mottier, there is a program to preserve and promote materials from the Schnabel family. It was really because of the Foundation that has made all the music available. I know they are also working on getting more music recorded and archived. Another reason could be that there is so much wonderful music out there from the last century – performers are simply overwhelmed – I know I am. I always feel like I need three more lifetimes to play and record everything I want.
AML: Have you played, or are you currently playing, some of Schnabel’s works in your live concerts?
JL: I recently gave a concert of Schnabel’s music at the Library of Congress, which was very well received. I am currently trying to contact more venues, and hopefully with the recording can now generate further interest.
AML: Have you been approached by other pianists who are themselves interested in playing Schnabel’s works in their recitals?
JL: Not really. But it will probably happen soon since this recording is now out. Then again, you can find the scores easily now. Though I would like to mention that it was thanks to Marc-Andre Hamelin that I included the Josef Strauss Waltz arrangements. He knew about my recording project, and sent me the music which he found in an old music store in Germany.
AML: Jenny, thank you so much for your valuable time! I know that my readers will greatly appreciate your answers and insights on these important recordings.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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