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American Record Guide, December 2008

Here, on another of Naxos’s excellent historical releases, are all of Arthur Schnabel’s commercial recordings of JS Bach’s music, dating from 1936 to 1950. I have an old and quite similar CBS recording by Rudolf Serkin—and both play a Bach multi-keyboard concerto with their sons! It would be hard to pick a clear winner between the two, though I have known and enjoyed the Serkin for many years and that makes me more comfortable with his tempos and articulations. But Schnabel is also a master pianist with intellect to match his musicality.

Praise to Naxos’s producer and audio restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, for making the older Schnabel recordings from the 1930s match up so well with the 1950 recording (the last one Schnabel made before his death in 1951). As pointed out in the excellent notes by Jonathan Summers, Schnabel was somewhat of a “Bach on the piano” pioneer. The Toccatas on this disc had not ever been recorded on the piano before. Although he rarely played Bach in public (he considered Bach too intimate for the concert hall), Schnabel was proud of these recordings. He also gave clear, irrefutable reasons for performing Bach on the piano. If you listen to this I’m sure you will agree.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, July 2008

Schnabel’s Bach recordings have been doing the rounds of late. EMI Références (67210-2) transferred them not so long ago and Doremi [7740] has done likewise. Urania contained most of the same ground but we can discount that selection and the Doremi, which are sonically far inferior to EMI and Naxos’s work. Earlier re-release work was on Pearl.

Schnabel’s Bach was uneven but at its best penetrating. His Italian Concerto is conveyed at a festive tempo in the outer movements, buoyant rhythmically albeit sometimes at the expense of gabbled passagework. Some of the leaps are blurred; the sense of strain is palpable though oddly it remains not unattractively masculine. The expressive intimacy of the slow movement perhaps suits him better; the finale reverts to the vibrancy of the opening though somewhat vitiated once again by sketchy detailing.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903 does contain elements of the technical lapses alluded to but the starker rhetoric and Schnabel’s control of the gravity of the writing ensures a perceptive, telling and frequently compelling reading. The ascending arc of acuteness is reached in the two Toccatas, which are the high points of his Bach discography. The opening of the C minor is relatively slow but affectingly intimate and direct, its Fugue I quite emphatic, the Fugue II powerful and directional. The D major reprises these virtues with a rather gruff avuncularity to be detected in the Introduction and correspondingly stark intensity in the Adagio. The Concerto performances teamed him with his son Karl-Ulrich and Adrian Boult, somewhat unusually directing not his BBC forces but the LSO, regular concerto partners of Schnabel’s at this time. It’s a supple performance, strong on linearity, and not stooping to smell the roses, especially not in the first movement.

Despite marketplace saturation point for these recordings, made over the years between 1936 (the concerto) and 1950, the year before Schnabel’s death, the fine, realistic sounding transfers, and budget price will – and should – attract admirers.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

For one who finds so little to enjoy in piano performances of Bach, I was surprised to find myself captivated by the disc

For one who finds so little to enjoy in piano performances of Bach, I was surprised to find myself captivated by the disc. Born in Austria in 1882, Artur Schnabel was to become Berlin’s most celebrated musician during the 1920’s, his European tours eventually extended to North America and the Far East. It was on a visit to Australia in 1939 that he decided against returning to Germany, and set up home in the United States, taking citizenship in 1944. Though attracted by the virtuoso concertos in his younger years, his fame resided almost entirely in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mozart and Schumann, playing little in public outside of these few composers. He did not add Bach to this quintet of composers, largely because he felt the modern grand pianos were not suited. Even on disc he performed little, his entire Bach output is heard on this one CD. Without mimicking a period keyboard, he has an instinctive feel for the music, and comes much closer to Bach than any modern pianist has achieved. The clarity of his Italian Concerto is captivating, his articulation so crisp and accurate. Even more inspiring is the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, the final fugue taken quite quickly yet with every note perfectly articulated. I love the way he makes the music dance in the Prelude preceding the D major Fugue from The Well -Tempered Clavier, a recording made in 1950 the year before his untimely death. He plays the Toccatas in C minor and D major, BWV 911 and 912, with cool detachment and a staccato that others have found too frigid.  The disc’s final work, the C major Concerto for Two Keyboards, BWV 1061, brings together father and his son, Karl Ulrich Schnabel. Here I find modernisms creeping in, but it is a performance of many delights, the reticent of the London Symphony Orchestra being its major shortcoming. The recordings were all made in London on four visits that Schnabel made for concert purposes between 1937 and 1950. The sound has been restored to a remarkable quality.

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