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As this collection establishes, the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) and his wife, the contralto Therese Behr-Schnabel (1876-1959), collaborated on musical matters other than producing a son, the teacher and performer Karl Ulrich Schnabel (1909–2001).

At first, the older, more established Behr-Schnabel assuaged her teenaged suitor’s doubts. They married in 1905, and as Schnabel’s career grew, she provided heart-warming, schadenfreude-filled accounts of professional disasters by colleagues. In December 1914, Behr-Schnabel recounted braving Berlin’s winter weather to hear Ferrucio Busoni play: ‘It was not worth it, at least not for me. My enthusiasm for Busoni is considerably cooled.’ Despite an ‘indescribably beautiful pianissimo’, Busoni’s Beethoven was ‘downright awful’, with every note a disappointment, while his ‘caricatural’ version of Schumann’s ‘Traumes Wirren’ from Fantasiestücke Op 12 was ‘vague and technically not pretty at all’.

On tour to the Hague in 1916, Schnabel wrote home revealing the close attention he paid to reviews: ‘In an Amsterdam newspaper, which I hope to bring home, I’m insulted in the most entertaining way.’ Not realising he was Austrian, critics labelled him as a Prussian with a ‘Kant or Hegel’ side, resulting in ‘perfection, but dreary boredom’.

In 1920, Schnabel wrote from Baden-Baden to describe 25-year-old Wilhelm Kempff in recital as a ‘bit past his sell-by date’ (verdorben). Sardonic and acerbic, in 1922 Schnabel wrote from New York describing recording dates as ‘cannings’ that occur in a ‘cannery’. He also slated the Russian pianist and Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) as an ‘antediluvian extinct creature … who never played well, now like a good village schoolmaster… Unspeakably funny, this spiritually bled, toothless, helpless old man!’

Lesser lights were also treated harshly, such as the French pianist Germaine Schnitzer, who died in 1982 at age 95. After a New York concert in 1922, she was described by Schnabel as having a ‘godforsaken, scandalous [unerhörte] piano technique.’ If Schnitzer were combined with the German pianist Elly Ney (1882–1968), he hazarded, she might amount to a full-scale artiste. Osip Gabrilowitsch, heard in 1922 in the Brahms Concerto No 1 in D minor, was ‘almost asleep, effeminate’.

When performers did not irk him, places did, such as Riga in 1928, where a ‘whole evening of Schubert at the piano seems to audiences – for the most part quite ignorant – a body blow’. Eventually, Behr-Schnabel did venture praise of pianists other than her husband, lauding Eduard Erdmann (1896-1958) in 1929: ‘He played brilliantly… He is a very strong personality and holds one, it’s a great pleasure to hear him.’ In 1945 she wrote from New York, calling Claudio Arrau a ‘fabulous piano player with a bomb-proof technique’.

By 1938, Schnabel was adjusting as an unwilling exile from Fascist Europe, terming American cities ‘yet another intersection of trash, beauty parlor, and kennels’. Even pianos in Los Angeles displeased him, as he noted in 1948, likening them to xylophones: ‘Everything sounds like Levantine Gershwin,’ a typical pun referencing the American pianist and Gershwin specialist Oscar Levant. This warts-and-all volume merits prompt translation into English.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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