Arbiter Records 121

Artur Schnabel: Brahms’s chamber music with Szigeti and Fournier

Brahms chamber music with Szigeti and Fournier. Text includes interview with Leon Fleisher.

Track List

Live recordings from 1947; with Joseph Szigeti, violin and Pierre Fournier, cello.

  1. Brahms Piano Trio in B, op. 8: I
  2. Brahms Piano Trio in B, op. 8: II
  3. Brahms Piano Trio in B, op. 8: III
  4. Brahms Piano Trio in B, op. 8: IV
  5. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in G, op. 78: I
  6. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in G, op. 78: II
  7. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in G, op. 78: III
  8. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in A, op. 100: I
  9. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in A, op. 100: II
  10. Brahms Sonata for violin and piano in A, op. 100: III

While the pianist Artur Schnabel is also remembered as teacher and composer, chamber music was the distinguishing work of his musical life. His wife, the singer Theresa Behr, had a profound influence on his music-making; in addition to a group of Lieder with Behr, we can hear Schnabel in recordings of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, the Dvorak, Schubert and Schumann piano quintets, and Beethoven’s cello sonatas. Schnabel’s earliest trio consisted of violinist Karl Flesch and cellist Jean Gérardy (who was replaced by Hugo Becker); Flesch and Schnabel collaborated to edit the Mozart and Brahms violin sonatas. In the decade before the Second World War, Schnabel and Bronislaw Huberman gave recitals in America in sonata repertoire that included the Brahms G major; Beethoven’s Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth (“Kreutzer”), and Tenth; selected sonatas by Schumann and Mozart, and the Schubert Fantasia.

Schnabel had been chosen to organize a Brahms festival in Berlin in 1933, to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth. He wrote:

“We had agreed that all the chamber music works with piano which Brahms had written would be performed in the festival by Huberman, Hindemith, Piatigorsky and me. Now, when Hitler came to power, we knew, of course, that the Brahms Festival, if held at all, would certainly not include us as performers. So it was no surprise when, also on my last morning in Germany [a functionary] telephoned me and said: ‘Mr. Schnabel, I have to tell you that I am no longer in charge of the Brahms Festival and plans have been changed. If you want to negotiate with the new man in charge, it would be __’, I interrupted him, saying: ‘I expected that.’ And I think these were about the last words I spoke in Germany: ‘Though I may not be pure-blooded, I am fortunately cold-blooded. Good luck to you.’

“In May 1933 I played at the Brahms Festival in Vienna. I mentioned that my participation in the Brahms Festival in Berlin had been cancelled. So Vienna, at that time not yet incorporated into Germany but independent, engaged us for their festival instead. We played Brahms’s trios and quartets – Huberman, Hindemith, Casals, and I. I also played the B-flat major Concerto, with Furtwängler conducting. “Performances went very well and we had great fun and pleasure at our rehearsals, with plenty of time. After one of our concerts we went to a very popular restaurant in the basement of a hotel. There were about fifty people there besides us. Around midnight Furtwängler came, with two friends, and his behaviour seemed planned and prepared. In the presence of these fifty or more people, he addressed Huberman and me, asking us once more whether we would not change our minds and come back the following winter to play in Berlin with him. We had been asked before and refused, of course, to do so, for reasons which you can easily guess. Huberman asked me to answer first. I made it very simple and said that if all the musicians were called back and reinstated in their former positions, then I would agree to come back. But if they were not called back, I would have to stick to my refusal. To my great amazement Furtwängler replied – and this was obviously not prepared – that I was mixing art and politics. And that was that.”

With Europe’s fall to totalitarianism, musical life became drastically reduced as many artists sought refuge in America. It was not until a unique series of events in 1947 that Schnabel was able briefly to revive the grand European chamber music tradition so characteristic of the years before fascism. He assembled a group to perform in England and on the continent: violinist Joseph Szigeti, cellist Pierre Fournier, violist William Primrose, and the violinist Ernest Element and bassist James Merrett. The first programs were given in Edinburgh, followed by a Brahms-Schubert festival in London; all of these concerts were broadcast throughout Europe by the major national radio networks. In Fall 1947, the group performed the following repertoire in London:

September 22: Brahms, Quartet in C minor, Op. 60; Violin Sonata in G, Op. 78; Schubert, Trio No. 2 in E flat. September 24 : Brahms, Trio in C minor, Op. 101; Cello Sonata in E minor, Op .99: Quartet in A, Op. 26. September 26: Brahms, Violin Sonata in A, Op. 100; Mendelssohn, Trio in D minor, Op. 49; Brahms, Piano Quintet in F minor, Op .34. September 29: Brahms, Trio in B, Op. 8; Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 108; Schubert, Quintet in C (“Trout”). October 1: Brahms, Trio in C, Op. 87; Schubert, Duo for Violin and Piano; Trio No.1 in B flat. October 3: Brahms, Cello Sonata in F, Op. 38; Schubert, Fantasia for Violin and Piano; Brahms, Quartet in G minor, Op. 25.

In Paris, a single record collector managed to cut acetates of the first and second Brahms violin sonatas, Schubert’s B-flat Trio, the Brahms B-major and Mendelssohn D-minor Trios. At Swedish Radio, another recorded the first two movements of the Brahms Trio (the opening bars missing) on adequate equipment. Other than these chance efforts no measures were taken to preserve these collaborations: those discs are the basis of our cd. As one hears the individuality of each artist emerge, one senses Schnabel’s role as he subtly guides tempo, character and style, inducing his colleagues to convey the music freely and with passion. Schnabel no longer publicly performed chamber music after 1948, and he died unexpectedly in 1951. -Allan Evans ©2000

The following interview was generously granted by Leon Fleisher, the eminent pianist, conductor and educator, to accompany publication of these historic documents. Fleisher had studied with Schnabel for ten years (1938-1948).

Lev Shorr was my first serious teacher. He mostly worked on technique – it was Russian school, very much curved fingers, picking them up, using them as hammers. It was a kind of ambivalent relationship. He was a very classy, sporty-looking gentleman who wore spats and a monocle, sported a cane, was bald on the top of his head, spoke with a thick Russian accent and acted as though it was never a good lesson unless I cried. But he would then make it up by taking me to lunch afterwards and would get me lamb chops – which started my predilection for that dish. The technique he offered was limited and I see, as I note in piano playing today, that it leads sometimes, if not often, to negative results. I next had a sweet teacher, a gentleman named Ludwig Altmann, who was essentially an organist, a young German who had arrived in San Francisco. He had a wonderful musical training and began emphasizing the beauties of music and the feelings that lay behind the notes. Between those two I had lessons with a rather well-known Danish pianist, Gunnar Johansen, who lived across the bay in Oakland. He also emphasized the beauties of music. I had been befriended by conductors in San Francisco: Pierre Monteux (then with the San Francisco Symphony) and Alfred Hertz, his predecessor, who had become conductor of the WPA Orchestra. Both of these gentlemen thought that I should study with Schnabel, that he would be the ideal teacher for me and they both knew him. In fact when Schnabel would come out to San Francisco he would have dinner with the Hertzes and play bridge afterwards. So it was decided, after Schnabel replied by a letter in which he very politely declined to teach me, since he said he never taught anyone under sixteen, that on his next visit to the Coast, during dinner they would sneak me into the Hertzes’ living room via the basement and have me ready at the piano when dinner was finished, and when the doors from the dining room to the living room were opened, I would be sitting at the piano ready to play for him. And being the gentleman that he was, he did not order me out of the Hertzes’ house, but sat down and listened to me. I played for him the Liszt Sonetto del Petrarca, No. 123 and the cadenza to Beethoven’s B-flat Concerto. I was nine and he invited me to come to Italy and work with him. This happened around March-April, and he invited me for that summer, in 1938.

We had friends who looked for sponsors and found a gentleman who at the time was not very involved with music but agreed to sponsor me. His name was James D. Zellerback, head of the Crown-Zellerback Paper Corporation. After assisting me he became quite interested in music and later was President of the San Francisco Symphony.

Schnabel’s teaching was done in what is called the master class format. All his other students were invited to listen to everybody else’s lesson, which was an enormously helpful format. There was a terrific array of repertoire and you began to see so many of what may be called the laws of music, how they pertained and were applied to different music and, as with all laws, they are respected only to the extent to which they are broken. But you can’t break a law unless you first know what it is. So it was an enormously productive and informative experience and it’s a format I’ve used most of my life. In the beginning, the first piece I brought him was Schubert’s little A-major Sonata [Op. 120]. Since he did a considerable amount of traveling in those days, he arranged that I work with his son Karl Ulrich when he wasn’t around and I did a great deal of work with him; he was also most inspiring and illuminating. The pieces I learned in those days were Liszt’s A-major Concerto, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms. Of the latter, I studied with them the Handel Variations, the Waltzes, endless small pieces – Opp. 116, 117, 118 – and both concertos.

Schnabel would gently mock the “hands apart” style: He felt one could be equally expressive playing hands together, and would say so with a twinkle in his eye. By this time, I had spent that one summer in Lake Como with him. The following year he had emigrated to New York and lived in the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, on 86th Street and Central Park West (if I remember correctly, in apartment 9C). He had two pianos there: one a nine-foot Steinway on which the students played, and an upright piano, at right angles, at which he sat, and what was so extraordinary was that the sounds he drew out of this little upright piano were so infinitely more beautiful than what we students could produce on the nine-foot Steinway. I remember Claude Frank and Hilda Banks among the group; Clifford Curzon would visit on occasion, as well as Firkusny, and Victor Babin in a handsome U.S. Army captain’s uniform. He demonstrated all the time and that was magic for us. He spoke very little about technique as such so that when he demonstrated we sat with eyes glued on his hands at the keyboard. My own hand position became more reposed, more relaxed, and at the same time at the ready and yet without tension and fingers more extended.

Rhythm was something that came out as a result of his playing, of his demonstrating. There would be this schwung, an irresistible swing to what he did, as though he were twirling you around in a dance. It was so extraordinary to learn that in the same tempo one could play slow or fast: in a sense, the rhythm depended on whether you played with a close-up lens, emphasizing the rhythmic subtext, the underlying pulsation, or whether you used a telephoto lens and just looked at half-bar points or bar points and dealt differently with what lay between.

His method of teaching, if you could call it such, was that in each lesson he would impart to the student everything he had learned about that piece of music in his lifetime. Then he expected you to absorb, to utilize what convinced you, which was why he rarely wanted to hear the same piece in two successive lessons, because, in effect, he would just be repeating himself. And it was interesting when we brought back a piece, say, one year later, he would have quite different things to say about it. He would accept other approaches as long as what was being communicated was faithful to the text and had conviction and beauty behind it.

I think it amused him to somehow inundate the students, because after two and a half or three hours, I would stagger out of that apartment like a drunk, I was just absolutely inebriated. We didn’t have tape recorders in those days, so we all sat with our copies and pencils, scribbling down every word that he uttered, which he found amusing because he said, “I say one thing to so-and-so in reaction to his performance, and if you were to play that piece for me I might say something different. So why do you write?”

His command of the language was so extraordinary for someone to whom English was not a mother tongue, his command was poetic and beautiful. I heard a tape on which Schnabel spoke for the US Information Agency during the War on the importance of liberty and freedom, against totalitarianism – to hear his voice again was a chilling thrill. The best way to describe it is that he sounded like Richard Burton with a German accent because he spoke slowly, relishing each syllable. The speaking alone was such a thing of beauty to hear.

What he communicated very soon became quite indistinguishable from Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, from whatever we were playing, because what he did and how he played the examples with such spontaneity, inspiration, and beauty made it seem that it was the only way to do it. I remember that for about two years after I left him I felt at sea, quite lost, convinced that I couldn’t remember all he had said over ten years. It took nearly two years. I remember quite clearly taking out Schubert’s Sonata in B flat (Op. posth.), and being confronted with a dilemma; and in thinking back over those years with Schnabel it was like a bubble rising to the surface of my brain, popping, and I remembered, “Oh yes, this is the kind of thing Schnabel would have said that about. Let me try it.” And, lo and behold, it worked. I began remembering things in that manner until I realized that I had not forgotten anything but it was just kind of hidden away and I had to uncover it. But then the next step was even more extraordinary. I was in Paris around the end of 1950, early 1951 (I had left him in 1949), and was listening with a friend to his recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, I think the Op. 22, and found myself saying “God, that’s wonderful, that’s beautiful but I’m not sure I’d do it that way, but this way.” When I sat back and reflected on what I’d told myself, I think I had by then somehow achieved a kind of independence.

I attended as many concerts of Schnabel’s as I could: I heard him play Mozart’s Piano Concertos K. 503 with Szell, K. 488 with Rodzinski, and a wonderful concert at the Frick Collection with Joseph Szigeti – the Schubert Fantasia, that was unbelievable- the opening was like a shimmering seascape.

In all music he would give advice in a specific place and one would extrapolate from that. He would demonstrate and one would hear how it was done. I worked on Chopin with him, the Polonaise Fantasy and other Polonaises, but he didn’t enjoy Debussy. I really assaulted him and he was not really happy, by playing the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and then when I had the effrontery to bring it back a year later because I had learned nothing new in between, he really was unhappy. I also played the Franck Symphonic Variations for him. He enjoyed Bartók: Hilda Banks brought it to the lessons.

In his way of dealing with time, since time is such a unique dimension, he would in effect distort time to further characterize or underline the character that he was trying to bring out. And to do it in a way in which, when it was perceptible, it became kind of irresistible in the swing that carried it. His dealing with beats: Beats are the subdivision of time. The emphasis was that beats were never downward events, they were not like fence posts or the hammering of coffin nails – beats were upward springs that would spring you on to the next beat. I often use with my students the image of a ballet dancer who walks on the ball of the foot and springs on to the next. Therefore his beat always had life to it and led on and on. If it was a vertical experience it was always upward. He went into analysis of structure. That was one of the great things, so that one got a sense of shape of the forms across the whole piece. Then it was filled with these incredible details but the large shape was always first. And that’s one of the difficult things for performers and instrumentalists, because they are responsible to produce every note and sometimes it gets a little tricky for the emphasis. Very often it turns to the minutiae, to each note. It’s difficult to do that and retain the overall sense of shape.

On pedaling he had enormous flexibility and variety and believed very much in fractional pedaling. The varieties of sound he achieved were the result of how he played, how he depressed the key and there was much variety.

He spoke occasionally of Busoni with much admiration, and of other people who were highly popular at the time with a certain rueful disparagement, with a voice of disappointment, more a tone of embarrassment or regret than any gleeful jealousy.

The only thing he let drop one day was that he had known Brahms, and all our ears pricked up. We wanted to know what great metaphysical questions they had discussed. He admitted that he was quite young at the time. At our urging, he said that Brahms had the habit of taking a picnic basket on Sunday afternoons into the Vienna woods, and once he asked the young Schnabel to go along. And we waited with bated breath to know what they had discussed and he said, “Brahms just said two things to me. Before the picnic, ‘Are you hungry?’ and after the picnic, ‘Have you had enough?’.”

-Leon Fleisher, Baltimore, December 26, 1999.

[In 1945, Schnabel recalled:”I heard Brahms play the piano part of his G-minor Quartet. This impressed me immensely and is still in my memory. It was, naturally, the great music which held and shook me, but also the creative vitality and wondeful carefreeness with which he played. This to me was the real grand style.”]