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Widely considered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest interpreters of Beethoven—and the first pianist to record that composer’s complete cycle of sonatas—Artur Schnabel is the subject of the latest release from RCA Red Seal Records (a division of Sony Classical). Bringing together all of his sessions for RCA Victor (recorded between June 16 and July 24, 1942), the two-disc set features Schnabel performing Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth piano concertos—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under second music director Frederick Stock—and two of the final piano sonatas (nos. 30 in E major and 32 in C minor), along with Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899.

Schnabel had appeared with the Orchestra and George Szell at the Ravinia Festival in July 1942, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 (July 11) and no. 5 (July 18) along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 (July 14) and Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 2 (July 16). Less than two weeks later, he and the ensemble—this time with Stock—were in Orchestra Hall to record Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto on July 22 and the Fourth on July 24.

Frederick Stock and Artur Schnabel onstage at Orchestra Hall in July 1942 (Chicago Sun-Times photo)

To coincide with the release of the recordings, the pianist was to return to Chicago later that fall for performances of both concertos under Stock. Sadly, the Orchestra’s second music director died unexpectedly on October 20, 1942, just after the start of the fifty-second season. As scheduled, Schnabel performed Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto on November 24 and the Fourth on November 26 and 27, but under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange.

Victor Records released Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (eight sides on four 78 rpm discs) also in late November. “It would be easy for Chicagoans to turn sentimental about such an album and to gloss over flaws with affection. But it isn’t necessary—in fact, it would be unpardonable condescension. For the performance is magnificent, with the boldness of authoritative style and the clairvoyance of ideal cooperation. It is recorded with superb accuracy, and with intelligent care for spacing, so the ear isn’t left hanging on a phrase while you turn a record,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “I came to the conclusion that the piano never has been more successfully recorded. Schnabel’s tone is there in quality, dimensions, and that brilliance of attack that means absolute security. . . . Mr. Stock’s accompaniment is typical of what Chicago took for granted for many a rich season.”

“In the Emperor, Schnabel italicizes phrase groupings and points up harmonic felicities in a more angular, nuanced, personalized, and arguably eccentric manner than in his earlier and later studio versions,” writes Jed Distler in the liner notes for this latest release. In the Fourth Concerto, the pianist, “offsets his stinging inflections with gorgeously limpid and poetically shaded runs, roulades, and passagework, and the most subtle transitions.”

The set is available for purchase from the CSO’s Symphony Store.

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

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Maestro Riccardo Muti and the CSO last night at Palm Desert’s McCallum Theatre. The program included works Schubert, Schumann, and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major performed by CSO Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson. The link to the CSO's tour schedule is in our bio. Photos by @toddrphoto. #CSOonTour

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