SCHUBERT: Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899. Impromptus, Op. posth. 142, D. 935. Allegretto in C minor, D. 915. March in E, D. 606. Moments musicaux, Op. 94, D. 780. Piano Sonata No. 21 in A, D. 959. Piano Sonata No. 22 in B flat, D. 960. Piano Quintet in A, Op. posth. 144, D. 667. (with Pro Arte Quartet Members). Lieder (with Therese Behr-Schnabel, contralto. Marches Militaires, Op. 51, D. 733 (with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, pianist); Divertissement à la Hongroise in G minor, Op. 54, D. 818. March in G minor, Op. 40, D. 819 No. 2. March in B minor, Op. 40, D. 819 No. 3. Andantino varié in B minor, Op. 84, D. 823. Allegro in A minor "Lebensstürme" Op. posth. 144. Rondo in A, Op. 107, D. 951 (with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, pianist).
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1173 (5 CDs) TT: 65:10 / 62:19 / 74:42 / 71:30 / 74:29

BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7. String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17. String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 4. String Quartet No. 5. String Quartet No. 6. Discussion of Quartet No. 1 by members of Fine Arts Quartet
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1176 (3 CDs) TT: 76:46 / 54:19 / 57:07

"Great Conductors of the Third Reich" - Furtwängler, Böhm, Blech, Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Krauss, Schillings

All three of these releases are historic in the temporal sense, the most recent being the Bartók string quartets recorded stereophonically by the Fine Arts four in 1959 – in the Masonic Hall at Wilmette, IL (a northern exurb of Chicago) -- originally released on the Concert Disc label. Maggi Payne restored them from the original master-tapes preserved by the group’s long-term cellist, George Sopkin, with Abram Loft’s welcomely unpretentious notes (compared, say, to the prima-donna prose of Harris Goldsmith in the Schnabel set that follows). During my tenure as music critic for a Chicago paper with four successive names before its parent, Tribune Corporation, killed it off in September 1974, the FAQ played an annual series of concerts for a rapt audience of, what local impresario Harry Zelzer used to dismiss as, “feinschmeckers.” I attended as few as possible because Leonard Sorkin, the FAQ’s founder and first violin, could play (at least for me) ear-achingly out of tune with a wide vibrato that only exaggerated his departures from dead-center pitch. I was, I guess, their bete noire and don’t recall listening to any of their releases on Concert Disc Lps.

Now, more than four decades later, this cardboard-boxed set with gummed sleeves (see Schnabel below, likewise packaged) has two performances that do the composer more than token justice: the First and Second Quartets (followed on Disc 1 by No. 3). The lyricism is heartfelt and the technical standard meticulous in the soft-grained tradition of Bartók Quartet performances. Thereafter, though, the playing becomes increasingly cautious until No. 6 with its four Mesto movements, which the FAQ appreciate and perform con amore (if that, in Bartók, is not an oxymoron). Quartets 4 and 5 are coupled on disc 2, which leaves the 30-minute Sixth alone on disc 3, followed by a lecture-demonstration of Quaret No. 1 with Norman Pellegrini, radio-station WFMT’s longtime program director and chief announcer as conferencier. Its 26:41 minute length originated in Chicago’s WTTW Channel 11 studios as part of an “educational” series the FAQ gave. It stirs nostalgia to hear Pellegrini again, one of classical music’s prime-grade announcers nationally. And this lesson is a genial one, in no way high-falutin’ or self-preening. As for the set, however, it comes in fifth behind the Vegh, Emerson, Tokyo and Vermeer SQs that I know best and in two cases have recently reviewed. For Chicago fans, I’d say, of yesteryear.

Despite Artur Schnabel’s Depression-era reputation (here and abroad) as a Beethoven specialist par excellence, he begged the financially imperiled moguls at EMI without success to let him record Schubert, especially the later piano sonatas. Instead, Walter Legge persisted in the completion of Beethoven’s 32 and “Diabelli” Variations, sold in England on subscription. (Ironically, the only one of those issued stateside by RCA Victor was the so-called “Hammerklavier,” Op 106 – technically the poorest played in the entire Schnabel canon.) The first Schubert that EMI agreed to were seven songs, all recorded on November 16, 1932, with Schnabel accompanying his wife, Therese Behr-Schnabel, a contralto by then 56 (which is to say, six years older than her husband, who had accompanied her as early as 1900 when he was just 18). Musicianship is never in question, but Behr-Schnabel’s voice was worn, and remarked to have been rather vinegary even in her prime. Best are “Der Doppelgänger,” “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus,” and “Der Musensohn,” but not performances one cares to hear a second time since the piano can only accompany, however artfully, leaving the relic of a voice front and center. Far more successful as Hausmusik are seven piano duets for four hands that Schnabel recorded in 1937 with his son Karl Ulrich (Lebensturme was added in 1939), 74+ minutes of music including musically major as well as minor works (i.e. the Marches, D.819, Nos. 2 and 3).

This five-disc set begins with Schnabel’s last surviving Schubert, the eight Impromptus, D.899 and D. 935, recorded in 1950 on audiotape ( before then everything was on 78 masters). Both poetic and straightforward as all are, I would place Edwin Fischer’s and Mitsuko Uchida’s on a greater level of insight and projection. The second disc begins with the six Moments musicaux, D.780, recorded in 1937, and concludes with the D-major Sonata, D.850, both of which were issued stateside by RCA Victor to the wonder of my generation, which was meeting them – and entranced – though today these lack a degree of the wonder that accompanies discovery. Like his French contemporary Alfred Cortot, Schnabel didn’t like to practice and there are patches when it shows. The third CD contains the only other sonatas Schnabel was permitted to record – the composer’s last two, in A (D.959) and in B-flat (D.960). The former made in 1937 remains for me his most formidable, but controversially the latter was on the light, almost hurried side in 1939. There remains only the “Trout” Quintet (D.667) from November 1935 with members of the Pro Arte Quartet, which begins disc 4, another US release still memorably eloquent despite Harris Goldsmith’s program note. About that note and the rest by Goldsmith: first comes an essay dating from 1982 for the Schnabel centenary; the rest is a critical review, disc by disc, in Goldsmith’s irritating style (he should have studied prose with Charles Rosen as well as piano with Schnabel, albeit by implication unsuccessfully). The transfer of this trove, in many cases audibly aged, have been cleaned, properly pitched and restored as finely as possible by Mark Obert Thorne, who is deservingly credited on the box cover (that’s right – a cardboard box not easily opened, with the discs in gum-sealed sleeves best slit open rather than peeled, lest gum get on the disc when it is removed and replaced; cheap, I’d say, of Music & Arts which is usually a class-act).

Time-wise, the Bel Canto Society’s DVD of Third Reich conductors – seven of them, between 1933 and 1944 – falls within the Schnabel years as a Schubert player on discs. As a Jew he was among the earliest either forced to leave Hitler’s new Reich or wise enough to read handwriting on the wall before dismissal and expulsion by the first conductor here, Max von Schillings, who died in 1933 shortly after his official appointment as President of the Prussian Academy of Arts. But not before he decimated the ranks of conductors, composers and authors labeled “racially impure.” Either in 1932 or ‘33, we watch him conduct the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra, which he led as music director from 1919 until his death, in Rossini’s improbable William Tell Overture (had no one read the libretto?!?). The sound for a film of that period is startlingly clear – the cello quartet, for example, at the start – but Schilling’s clean beat early on gets a little hectic in the fast sections, ably but otherwise unremarkably played. Thereafter, except for 1:08 at the end of the first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished,” conducted by Clemens Krauss in July 1943 with the Berlin Phil, the rest of the music is either from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger or the coda of Beethoven’s 9th (first by Furtwänger on April 19, 1942, the eve of Hitler’s birthday with Goebbels in gleeful attendance, smilingly greeted by the conductor at the end; then by Hans Knappertsbusch (who never joined the party) in either 1942 or April 1943, fascinating to watch in closeup and as spirited as Furtwängler without the latter’s sonic Bacchanal in the Presto coda. But Die Meistersinger, Wagner’s paean to pan-Germanism, gets the greater play, beginning with Leo Blech’s 1933 version with the Staatsoper Orchestra – a brisk 7:52 compared to Furtwängler’s 9:31 with the Berlin Phil at an AEG factory concert in February 1942, which focuses on the faces of workers, not one of whom looks transported, or for that matter conscious of who Wagner was. After Blech, to go back, there is the third act finale conducted by Karl Boehm, with Wilhelm Rode as Hans Sachs at the dedication of the Deutsches Opernhaus (date not given), followed by a 46-second panygeric on “The Forces in the German Soul.” Boehm was another non-joiner, but a boastful friend of Hitler who delighted in offending Jews during his years at the New York Metropolitan with anecdotes about his visits to Berchtesgaden. Then come the final two minutes of the Overture from a Paris concert at the Palais Chaillot in 1941 with Karajan conducting the Prussian Staatskapelle (a.k.a. Berlin Staatsoper’s concert contingent) with all the drama of Conrad Veidt but none of the elegance, and a longer haircut in back than later. This was “Das Wunder Karajan” I saw at his Berlin Phil debut in April 1938, ferret-eyed and flamboyant. But that’s a story for another time and place. The DVD ends with an except from Meistersinger, what else?, with either Hermann Abendroth or Furtwängler conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra of 1943 (both led performances that year; this one unidentified).

Plainly the DVD’s source was a Nazi patchwork to rouse the Volk, remastered using “PCM audio rather than compressed formats such as Dolby Digital and DTS, which retain only a fraction of the original sound....PCM is more expensive in part because it eats up disc space....For analog-to-digital audio conversation, we used the AD122-96 MKII Gold, from Lavry Engineering.” etc. In back of all those names is a science that gives us astonishing sound from a loathsome era in German history. A generous program book has an excoriating essay by Frederic Spotts along with conductors’ biographies. For the singers (in Beethoven and Wagner) Stefan Zucker collaborates with Spotts. But what remains most vividly in memory is Furtwängler, conducting that birthday eve concert of April 19, 1942, and his unfeigned smile and handshake when Goebbels comes forward at the end. I’ve watched it twice but can’t again; memories remain too vivid, even now, almost 70 years since I spent a winter in Hitler’s capital as a bewildered but alien “guest.”

R.D. (January 2006)