Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN
Piano Concerto No. 4
Piano Concerto No. 5
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Hans Wallberg (4)· Zubin Mehta (5)
REGIS RRC 1047
For around £6 per disc from your dealer
Here's one for sentimentalists or those fascinated by the history of twentieth
century piano playing. Alfred Brendel has recorded three Beethoven Piano
Concerto cycles - with Haitink, Levine and Rattle. The first and third, in
particular, are generally considered seminal examples of this great pianist's
development as an interpreter of Beethoven. But about fifteen years earlier
still, when Brendel was turning thirty years old, the almost unknown young
player was offered the opportunity by the ever-adventurous American independent
Vox Records to record the fourth and fifth concertos. The result, alongside
solo recordings for Vox of music that Brendel would later drop from his
repertoire, helped launch his career. His later signing by Philips - then
a major player in the classical recording business - set the seal on what
was to become a remarkable journey through the great masterpieces of
Listening to these forty-year old recordings today has something of a 'through
a glass darkly' feel to it. The recorded sound - never Vox's strong suit
- is often muddy and there are occasional small distortions in sforzandi
and climaxes. The stereo is real enough and fortunately the piano is both
forwardly balanced and well tuned.
The overall impression is of a young man who is already a master musician.
There are no hints of any impetuous exaggerations nor lack of an absolute
conviction in what he wants to say. Throughout this CD I marvelled at the
subtlety and understanding of Brendel's vision of Beethoven. Time and time
again he communicates at a level few can equal today. The Vienna Symphony
(Vienna Pro Musica on the original Vox/Turnabout sleeves) was hardly in the
same class. Some of the playing (under a sleepy Wallberg and a very youthful
and fiery Mehta) is comical rather than distressing. In a way this only serves
to point up the genius of the young Brendel even more clearly.
When such naïve orchestral playing and recorded balance coincide there
can often be an unexpected bonus. In both concertos details of Beethoven's
orchestral accompaniment are here discernible in way that is usually hidden
in 'better' recordings. Examples include a very 'period instrument' sounding
timpani at the end of the 'Emperor' and a valuable viola figure accompanying
the piano (usually lost in the acoustic mush) at 7.07 in the concerto's opening
movement. One's usual conclusion on these occasions is to either blame the
composer for poor orchestration (which I would not do in the case of Beethoven)
or hope that conductors in future would take note and ensure that a better
balance can be achieved.
In the Fourth Concerto, Brendel opted to include the then rarely heard
alternative first-movement cadenza, which he played wonderfully. The subsequent
exaggerated 'rit' at the very end of the coda should only be seen as an
interesting example of performance style of the period.
Brendel's 'Emperor' has always been very special, even in comparison with
the rest of the cycle. He recently announced that certain very virtuosic
and demanding works would no longer be part of his repertoire. This mature
and sensible statement is made all the more telling when listening to this
CD. Brendel's technique in the early 1960s was superb and, notwithstanding
his greater maturity today, certain rapid passages in the first movement
are played with a breathtaking accuracy bordering on perfection. Examples
can be found at 5:15 and, in particular, the recapitulation of the opening
statement at 12:09.
If you want to buy a CD of Brendel performing either of these concertos then
you should really head for his discs with Rattle (Philips).
But this economically priced reissue from Regis is very special in its own
way and I for one would not wish to be without it.