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October 18, 1987|HERBERT GLASS

While it would be simple and catchy to claim that pianist Artur Schnabel was to Schubert what Schnabel also was to Beethoven, it would be misleading.

The Austrian-born (in 1882) pianist did bring unprecedented scholarly acumen to the Beethoven sonatas and concertos--and was the first to record them in toto during the early 1930s. Unlike the Beethoven sonatas, however, the sonatas and four-hand pieces of Schubert were little appreciated by musicians and all but unknown to the general public until Schnabel began to program and later to record them.

New York-based Arabesque Records, which a couple of years ago brought to compact disc Schnabel's Beethoven concertos, now turns its attention to his Schubert, most of it recorded in London between 1937 and 1939.

That these performances are no longer the revelations they once were is Schnabel's own fault, bless him. We are familiar with this music now, thanks to his pioneering efforts on stage, in the recording studios and with his students, of whom Clifford Curzon was the most eminent.

Still, Schnabel's interpretations are no less richly satisfying than when they served as introductions to this music a half-century ago. But one wonders if they ever sounded as clear and spacious as they do in these remarkable transfers from 78 rpm records, the handiwork of a British wizard named Keith Hardwick.

There are, in all, five individual Arabesque CDs, containing the following: the "Trout" Quintet, with members of the Pro Arte Quartet and bassist Claude Hobday, coupled with the Sonata in A, D. 959 (6571); the complete Impromptus (6572); the Piano Sonata in D, D. 850, with the "Moments Musicaux" (6573); "Divertissement a la Hongroise," in which the second pianist is No. 1 son, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, with a collection of songs where the elder Schnabel accompanies his wife, contralto Therese Behr-Schnabel (6574), and the Sonata in B flat, D. 960, with the four-hand "Lebenssturme," again with Karl Ulrich (6575).

What strikes one initially about these performances is their naturalness, their simplicity, if you will. Schnabel insisted on keeping the melodic line clear-cut and mobile, without unseemly Luftpausen or lavish rubatos. He favored strict but not rigid rhythms. All his Schubert interpretations, as he never tired of saying, had their basis in singing and in song.

As regards Schnabel's colleagues here: The Pro Arte Quartet plays with beguiling sweetness and vivacity in the "Trout" Quintet and Karl Ulrich is a worthy partner in the four-hand pieces. Frau Schnabel, however, is a problem. The seven songs--including such familiar items as "Der Doppelganger," "Der Musensohn" and "Erlkonig"--were recorded in 1932, at which time the singer was in her late 50s. The voice is, not to belabor the point, feeble and quavery. The whole venture has about it an unfortunate suggestion of caricature: a Teutonic Margaret Dumont giving a lieder recital in a posh salon. But that's hardly Groucho (or Chico) at the piano.

This misbegotten act of conjugal affection aside, the Schnabel Schubert collection is part of the history of Western music, and anyone not familiar at the very least with his gloriously unaffected, clarifying way with the B-flat and A-major Sonatas has a serious knowledge gap--one which can now be filled.

The forceful simplicity of Schnabel's Schubert is in direct contrast to the interpretation of the B-flat Sonata by the legendary Vladimir Sofronitzki (1901-1961), one of whose rare visits to the recording studio, a year before his death, is preserved in Harmonia Mundi's "Great Russian Pianists" series (905169, CD).

Sofronitzki, unlike Schnabel, was somewhat of a mystic, an inspiration-of-the-moment sort of pianist with reputedly limitless resources of technique and tone at his command: a specialist in the music of Alexander Scriabin, who happened also to be his father-in-law.

His Schubert, however, is overbearing and ultimately tiresome, with its incessant tempo and dynamic shifts. Where Schnabel projects a melodic line, Sofronitzki teases it. In the accompanying collection of Liszt's flossy transcriptions of Schubert songs, however, Sofronitzki the glittering Romantic virtuoso is thrillingly in his element.

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