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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major ‘Op. 106 "Hammerklavier"
Six Bagatelles for Piano, Op. 126, No. 2 & No. 3
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

"Wanderer" Fantasy in C Major, D760
Julius Katchen (piano)
Filmed in Paris, 27 February 1970 (Sonata) and 28 February 1970 (Bagatelles)
Directors: Antoine Hirsch and Yvonne Courson
Filmed in the Salle Gaveau, Paris, 16 November 1967 (Fantasia)
Director Gérard Herzog
DVD contains no regional code but will play on PAL machines only
PAL System 4:3
Linear PCM Mono 1.0 sound remastered for DVD
Menu in English, French, German, Spanish
EMI Classics DVA 4901229 [69.30]


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I can think of few pianists that I’d rather hear in Beethoven than Alfred Brendel. It seems to me that he unfailingly brings insight to bear on this composer’s music and, indeed, on that of many others also.

This DVD contains a film of him playing one of the towering masterpieces of the piano repertory, the Hammerklavier sonata. As Misha Donat points out in his lucid and informative note, the sheer physical demands posed by this sonata have compelled Brendel to cease performing it in recent years. Donat says this decision was a wrench to Brendel. How much more of a wrench is it to Brendel’s admirers? Though we still have audio recordings to remind us of his prowess in this work it is very valuable to have a visual record of him performing this work. Those who have not seen him in action should be warned, however, that his many facial contortions may come as a surprise.

The performance was recorded in what I take to be a television studio. There was no audience present. The camera work is pretty conventional but one must remember that the film was shot over thirty years ago. What we have here, I’d say, is a pretty representative Brendel performance, combining poetry and intellectual rigour.

In the first movement Brendel invests the music with all the necessary strength but he gives proper weight to the reflective passages also. The Adagio is a profound meditation and here Brendel communes with himself and with the music most intently. In my experience Brendel is at his very finest in movements such as this and I found the present reading of this great soliloquy very satisfying. He offers resolute and suitably trenchant playing in the fearsomely demanding finale leaving us in no doubt that he is fully equal to the physical and mental challenges posed by Beethoven in this movement.

The following day Brendel returned to the same studio for another session at which these two Bagatelles were set down. Was the complete set recorded, I wonder? These pieces are, of course, on a much smaller scale than the sonata but they are certainly not slight. Brendel lavishes the same care and skill on them as we witnessed during the sonata. I was especially taken with his poetic performance of Number 3.

I’ve commented earlier on the camera work, which is solid if unspectacular. The same description applies to the sound. On my equipment the sound of the piano reproduced reasonably well in the bass but there was quite a harsh, clangy treble sound in the upper octaves, especially during louder passages. Those who have run their DVD through a hi-fi system may well be able to tame this by judicious use of the treble control.

As a fairly substantial bonus we are offered film of the American pianist, Julius Katchen, playing the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia. This performance was also given in Paris (Katchen’s adopted home for much of his life) but on this occasion an audience was present. Unlike the Brendel items this film is in black and white, by the way. Again, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the sound has its limitations. I found it clangy at the top and somewhat muffled and woolly in the bass. Despite these limitations we get a pretty good idea of Katchen’s performance, which I certainly enjoyed. I found it an impressive and committed account, thoroughly deserving the warm reception he gets from the audience. Particularly impressive were the deeply felt yet nicely flowing adagio and the finale, which Katchen projects strongly. Within 18 months of the date of this performance Katchen was dead at the tragically early age of 42. What a loss!

This DVD, then, offers straightforward visual records of two fine pianists in their respective primes, playing repertoire well suited to each of them. Though both the sound and visual aspects have limitations it is still a recommendable release which will be of great interest to admirers of either artist.

John Quinn

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