About this Recording
8.110664 - BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Schnabel) (1938)

There is a story about a small boy in Vienna who, on the way to his piano lesson, was passing a music shop. In the window was displayed a new work which he bought as a gift for his piano teacher. Upon presenting it to his teacher he was greeted with explosions and insults and told to leave the class. The teacher was Leschetizky, the music by Brahms, and the boy was Artur Schnabel.

Through his lessons in composition with Mandiczewski, the twelve-year-old Artur occasionally went on Sunday picnics with a group that included Brahms. The great composer always asked the same two questions: before the meal if young Artur was hungry, and afterwards if he had had enough to eat. Although Schnabel came to be known particularly for his interpretations of Beethoven and Schubert, he was not deterred by the unfortunate episode with Leschetizky from playing Brahms throughout his career at the beginning of which he often performed both piano concertos. In the latter part of his career he tended to play the first less, but played the second at the Royal Albert Hall in London as late as 1947.

At the invitation of Serge Koussevitzky in 1914 Schnabel visited Russia for the second time. He played the D minor Concerto in St Petersburg and Moscow with great success. He told his wife that he had never played the concerto so well and with such freedom. On his first tour of America in 1921 he was asked to play the same concerto in Buffalo and Detroit. He was fortunate that at this time the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was the great pianist and musician Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Schnabel said that it was the only pleasant interlude in a long period of ‘unemployment’ because he was completely unknown outside Europe. The Detroit Free Press, however, which owned a local radio station, experimentally broadcast the concert to thousands of listeners thus giving him greater exposure. He was very unhappy on this first tour of America and during one of the final concerts in Chicago where he again played the D minor Concerto with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the piano keys would not sound. The performance had to be halted and a replacement piano found in the basement of the building.

In 1929 Schnabel was in London where, at the Queen’s Hall, he played the Beethoven G major Concerto and the Brahms D minor in one programme with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. This was an extremely successful occasion with the critics exclaiming on all sides. "A new chapter in the history of music- making was opened in Queen’s Hall last night" said one, while the famous critic Ernest Newman referred to "his complete mastery of all aspects – form, display and emotion."

In 1932 Schnabel was back in Germany and in early December Bruno Walter engaged him to play the Brahms First Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. "A performance of well-nigh unsurpassable power", said the local press. Back in London at the end of the following year he played three Mozart concertos with Sargent as well as the First Concerto of Brahms with Adrian Boult, and the Second with Thomas Beecham.

By the time he came to record the D minor Concerto with Szell, Schnabel had been making records for HMV for the last nine years and was getting used to the process. This is what he had to say about recording. "In 1929 I was asked once again whether I would not agree to make records. Until then I had consistently refused to do so. One of the chief reasons for my refusal was that I did not like the idea of having no control over the behaviour of the people who listened to the 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. Also, I felt that recordings were against the very nature of performance, for the nature of performance is to happen but once, to be absolutely ephemeral and unrepeatable. I do not think there could ever have been two performances of the same piece by the same person which were absolutely alike. That is inconceivable…… For ten years, from 1929 to 1939, I made all my recordings with the same engineer [Edward Fowler], so in the end the two of us did the work quite alone. There was no interference and I was, by then, very pleased with the spirit of the thing. In the meantime, everything had changed. Acoustic conditions had become better and there were also certain improvements in the technique of recording."

On the 9th January 1938 Schnabel went into the HMV studio 1 at Abbey Road in London with Szell and the London Philharmonic Orchestra to record the D minor Concerto. Although the Adagio was practically recorded and issued in first takes, the first movement proved more problematic; the musicians had to return to the studio on 18th December 1938 to re-record the last three sides of the first movement as well as one side of the Finale.

It is interesting that a contemporary review from April 1939 of this recording with Szell complains that in the last movement "Schnabel is not an ideal passage player. In the start he indulges in his persistent bad habit of rushing – one of the most weakening a pianist can allow to creep in. This player ought really to take himself in hand." A review of a re-issue of this recording in 1991 also states "In the last movement bad ensemble and snatched, lumpy phrasing from the soloist return to make the performance more than a little unsatisfactory." Schnabel certainly has his detractors where ‘technique’ is concerned, but it would appear that some of these rhythmic irregularities are intentional. Conrad Wolff, a pupil of Schnabel, states that in the last movement of the D minor Concerto in groups of four semiquavers "Schnabel not only emphasised the upper notes of each pair of notes, but he also separated each of these pairs….", the effect being that the second and third notes of a group of four would be emphasised and detached from the first and fourth. Wolff also cites a passage in the last movement [Track 3 at 4’14"]: "There are some works in which the deliberate separation, by rubato playing, of groups of slurred notes can be helpful. In the following example from the Finale of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto some of the phrases extend over four notes, some over eight and some over only two. This passage gains in ‘playfulness’ if, like Schnabel, the pianist plays each group a little too fast (although without an accent at the beginning of each phrase), making a ‘Luftpause’ before beginning the next group. Schnabel, though he was frequently criticised for it, applied this method in concerto playing wherever it would serve to clarify the structure."

Although thought of as a Brahms specialist because of his many performances of both concertos, it was not until 1947 that Schnabel came to record any of the solo works. Things had changed at HMV since before the war, and now Walter Legge was in charge. Schnabel proposed amongst other things that he record the Rhapsodies, Intermezzi and Capriccios of Brahms as well as Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Two Intermezzi and two Rhapsodies were recorded at Abbey Road studios on 4th June 1947 four years before the pianist’s death in 1951. For some reason, the Rhapsody, Op.79, No.1 was never issued, but the remaining titles reveal a deep understanding of Brahms which, by this time, had matured into something very special, introspective and personal.

Close the window