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Artur Schnabel's Mozart on CD

February 05, 1989|HERBERT GLASS

Artur Schnabel was among the musicians who permanently altered our perception of Mozart--until the late 1930s regarded as the lovably innocent representative of A Gracious Era that preceded the onset of real (that is, Romantic) music.

The Austrian pianist (1882-1951) began, alone among the world's celebrated pianists, to program Mozart on his recitals as early as 1921. (Earlier, he had shown not only the public but also practicing musicians the wonders of the supposedly unworthy and unplayable Schubert sonatas and a good deal of Beethoven's piano music as well.)

Around 1930 he also began to play the Mozart concertos, over the protests of impresarios who saw little appeal to audiences in such unshowy repertory.

Britain's EMI Records was to find Schnabel's Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart interpretations worthy of preservation and dissemination. Yet EMI, whose American branch is Angel Records, does not seem to consider Schnabel a salable commodity in the CD era.

Thus the Schnabel legacy is available on compact disc in the United States through New York-based Arabesque Records, which has now released, on remarkably clear-sounding, individually packaged CDs, four volumes of Mozart (Arabesque 6590-6593), recorded between 1934 and 1948.

Schnabel's Mozart is less of a qualitative piece than his Schubert and Beethoven. It could be reasoned that the interpretive inconsistencies resulted from Mozart's idiom being so far removed in time and temperament from any repertory commonly performed in this century. The problems are evidenced in some of the concertos, where the pianist, not always on sure stylistic ground himself, had also to contend with uninformed conductors and orchestras.

In the 1934 recording of the Concerto in B-flat, K. 595, the pianist's soporifically slow tempos are no more tolerable for the absence of such components of "bad taste" as Romantic rubato and fussy, exaggerated dynamics. And the conducting of the as-yet unknighted John Barbirolli fails to impose order on an appallingly scruffy London Symphony.

Nor does Schnabel, in his this-time consistently energetic, rhythmically alert reading of the Concerto in F, K. 459, receive even token sympathy from knight-to-be Malcolm Sargent, who permits stretches of unctuous, uncoordinated portamento from the LSO strings and has his winds delivering their phrases in a chatteringly mechanical staccato. But both here and in the Concerto in C, K. 467, the pianist hurdles orchestral obstacles with his crisp touch and phrasing as well as an easygoing lyricism. Then again, he could subvert his own cause by forcing onto Mozart's chasteness in K. 467 and the later concertos flashy, home-made cadenzas that are anachronistic monstrosities.

The three remaining concertos show better solo-ensemble coordination. Conductor Adrian Boult, leading a less disheveled LSO, is a strong partner to the Schnabels, father Artur and son Karl Ulrich, in a neatly propulsive two-piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 365. Later, in the post-World War II versions of the two minor-key concertos (K. 466 and K. 491), Schnabel, conductor Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra compose an integrated performing team.

These latter--taut, driving, unsentimental--are early exemplars of the modern style of Mozart interpretation.

Still, it could be argued that the best of Schnabel's work is to be found in the solo pieces. Without the need to transcend conductorial and orchestral vagaries, the pianist works the sort of simple magic that made his name a byword for interpretive conviction and honesty.

The Sonatas in A minor, K. 310; in F, K. 332 (recorded in 1948 and issued here, unbelievably, for the first time), and in B-flat, K. 570, project a quick-witted vitality and textural clarity that are as bracingly communicative today as they must have been half a century ago. Here, too, is the 1946 recording of the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, perhaps his most famous and influential Mozart performance, which proved that the composer not only could plumb emotional depths but that they could be projected without Romantic distortion.

Finally, Arabesque offers the G-minor Piano Quartet, K. 478, recorded in 1934, wherein Schnabel's incisively elegant pianism is expertly supported by members of the legendary Pro Arte Quartet.

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