April 17, 2010
There’s a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967) where a man seated in a barnyard shed with a piano plays Mozart and — cigar in mouth — fulminates against “modern” music. The man, it turns out, was a student of ARTUR SCHNABEL (1882-1951) and he concludes the recital declaring “He was a pianist; I’m just crap!” Strong stuff, especially since Schabel’s teacher Theodor Leschetizky had famously told him, “You will never be a pianist, you’re a musician.” While often considered disparaging of Schnabel’s technique, this assessment points the way forward, as does Schnabel’s move from Vienna to Berlin in 1900. There begins Schnabel’s career as a concertizer (proving he had plenty of technique), teacher and, crucially, composer who would be transformed by Arnold Schoenberg’s revolution in harmony. Thus the Schnabel conundrum: how could the artist who presented only music “better than it can be performed” (as he described his narrow Austro-German repertoire) also write such restlessly avant-garde scores? As well-respected as Schnabel’s interpretations were, his own, equally probing compositions were often derided. Conductor Arturo Toscanini once aske, “Are you the same Schnabel who wrote that terrible sonata I heard in Venice?”and even Theodor Adorno took a shot in his Aesthetic Theory. Schnabel, a Jew, left Germany in 1933, moving first to England, then America. Nearly all of his recordings remain benchmarks, a testament to the modernist vision of a man whose edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas boldly warned “The fingering… may here and there appear somewhat strange.”
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