BRAHMS:  Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 83.  SCHUMANN:  Kinderszenen, Op. 15.
Artur Schnabel, pianist/BBC Symphony Orch; Sir Adrian Boult, cond.

NAXOS 8.110665 (B) (ADD) TT:  62:16

The Brahms that 53-year-old Artur Schnabel recorded for HMV on November 7, 1935, turned out to have flawed recorded sound. One week later, seven of the 12 sides had to be remade in Studio 1 at Abbey Road. It had no competition in the stateside Victor catalog at first, even though reviews were mixed -- deservedly, as Mark Obert-Thorn's fine CD remastering lets us hear clearly. But then came the storied 1940 pairing of Horowitz and Toscanini, recorded in Carnegie Hall rather than NBC's acoustically dead Studio 8-H, and a few years later the eloquent partnership of Serkin and Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra on American Columbia. In Germany, Wilhelm Backhaus and Elly Ney recorded it during the Hitler years, heard eventually in America on imported pressings, followed by a veritable spate of Brahms B-flats domestic and foreign. Schnabel, whose reputation at age 20 and after was built on performances of it, got dropped from the catalog (I found it in a cutout store during the '40s, only to be dumbstruck by passages of sloppy pianism; Horowitz had ensorceled my generation, although his version was really Toscanini's show, both as ring-master and whippet-trainer).

Listening six decades later I am still put off by Schnabel's messiness when the going got tough -- in the coda for example of the first movement, as well as in the finale. Interesting that David Hall in The Record Book found some of it "stolid" more than a half-century ago, while Boult's conducting tended to get dismissed as accompaniment. Yet like Toscanini in his 1940 recording, Boult lit what fires there were, and his five-year-old BBC Symphony Orchestra was already playing on a near-par with Beecham's hallowed London Phil of prewar years. In 2001 Lauri Kennedy finally gets liner-credit as solo cellist in the slow movement, and once the horn playing firmed up the BBCSO of 1935 was hardly inferior to Toscanini's overrated NBCSO of 1940.

I'm saddened; I met Schnabel socially and was utterly charmed by him. I bought all of his Beethoven on 78s (even the scandalously sloppy "Hammerklavier" Sonata -- how much so I realized when Wilhelm Kempff's prewar performances became available after the war on imported French Polydor discs, followed by Egon Petri's finger-perfect playing on an early Columbia LP). And I treasured Schnabel's Mozart when he didn't disfigure concertos with his own ugly cadenzas, und so weiter.

But this Brahms remains very much as I first knew it, without 78-side breaks of course, or surface noise: Obert-Thorn has performed another act of sonic prestidigitation, so often by now that we tend to take him for granted. Nor is the 1947 Schumann a bonus. I cannot recall Schnabel otherwise as a Schumann player, and this Kinderszenen is both pedantic and didactic in greater part. The performance to possess and replay is Horowitz's last one, on DG; he was never my favorite musician, despite all that neurasthenic technique, but in his terminal throes he found the heart of Schumann and childhood.

With Schnabel I must do a Roger Ebert:  thumbs down.

R.D. (Dec. 2001)