Music: Purist

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When Pianist Artur Schnabel announced that this year in Manhattan he would play the 32 Beethoven sonatas, skeptics shook their heads, wondered how even Schnabel would dare to challenge a public with a dose so tremendous. The cycle at Carnegie Hall would require seven stiff programs, one a week for seven weeks. Pianist Schnabel is not a glamorous figure, but a stubby, square-headed little Austrian who stalks woodenly on stage, seats himself leisurely at his piano, waits for quiet, proceeds to play as if he had no audience. When Schnabel decides on a program, his invariable comment is: "Who wants to come will come." It was to be expected that earnest young music students would be on hand for his series, meticulously following each note of the score. Surprise was that ordinary concertgoers would catch the fever, that by last week when the cycle approached its halfway mark the Schnabel recitals had become a popular rage. Seldom have audiences been more attentive. There are pianists who play with more flash than Schnabel, who hammer out louder crescendos, make their pianissimos more consistently haunting. But few have been known to give so much substance to their music, to play with such clarity, such a grasp of structure. The many moods Schnabel projects offer eloquent proof of the years he has devoted to the study of Beethoven. Peak performance last week was the abused Appassionata, a flawless realization of the composer at his stormiest which had all the more meaning because it never went wild. Because encores destroy the balance of his programs, this purist refuses to play them, just as he refuses to waste his time on frothy, mediocre music. Most pianists would be vastly impressed by such unanimous acclaim as his playing has received lately. But last week Schnabel was skeptical, saying, "I am not sure that it's good for me to be so popular. I am not sure that it's good for Beethoven."