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DVD REVIEW


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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Brendel plays and introduces Schubert
DVD1
"Wanderer" Fantasie, D760 (1822)
Piano Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823)
Piano Sonata in C major, D840 (1825)
DVD2
Piano Sonata in A minor, D845 (1825)
Piano Sonata in D major, D850 (1825)
DVD3
Piano Sonata in G major, D894 (1826)
Impromptus, D899 (1827)
Impromptus, D935 (1827)
DVD4
Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 (1828)
Moments Musicaux, D780 (1928)
3 Klavierstücke, D946 (1828)
DVD5
Piano Sonata in A major, D959 (1828)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960 (1828)
Alfred Brendel (piano)
rec. Hörfunkstudio, Radio Bremen, June 1976, June 1977, December 1977
Picture Format: NTSC 4:3
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Booklet Notes: English German, French
Running Time: 565 mins
Region Code: 0
EUROARTS 2056558 [5 DVDs: 9:25:00]



The more mature Brendel we see on the cover of this magnificent 5 DVD set is not the more youthful, but still distinguished artist we hear on these excellent recordings. Remarkably, this is the first general release of these 1976-77 recordings by Radio Bremen. Each volume consists of a 10–15 minute introduction to each work by Alfred Brendel, followed by a complete performance. Brendel speaks in German, but his diction is slow and clear enough to give even non-linguists an impression of his meaning – the subtitles being usefully accurate and equally clear. Many of the aspects Brendel covers in these introductions are given musical illustrations – demonstrations of thematic relationships, as well as pianistic/technical subjects relevant to how Brendel considers Schubert should be correctly interpreted. Not every pianist will necessarily agree with everything he says, but I would say they owe it to themselves at the very least to be aware of his message. The introductions have a rather dry, almost old-fashioned quality, like those old Open University lectures broadcasts at ungodly hours on the BBC in the same period. Brendel’s lectures are, however, entirely and extremely approachable to anyone curious to learn more about the substance of Schubert’s mature and late period piano works, and the means by which they can be brought to life by a great master.
 
While his delivery is measured and objective; Brendel doesn’t shy away from humour. Comparing some ‘outrageous’ defiance of the strict rules of counterpoint, the confidingly deprecating look he gives when illustrating the ‘correction’ made in the parallel octaves in a Beethoven work is priceless – this in the introduction to the Impromptus. I was also highly amused by his comments on repeats in Schubert – that, while he has nothing against any pianist’s desire to play certain sections again and again at home, they should beware of overtaxing their own and their audience’s stamina by religiously including every repeat indicated by Schubert. He goes on to indicate his own opinion about the relationship between repeats and proportion – not an inevitable connection – and his reasons for leaving certain less convincing repeats out altogether. There are other anecdotes, such as the time an ambassador asked him not to play Schubert at a charity concert the day after the death of Pope John XXIII, as his music had the association of frivolity. Brendel was of course illustrating the ‘kitsch’ perception of Schubert which was apparently still alive and kicking in 1963. This is a recurring theme in these introductions, one-by-one dispelling the age-old stereotypical ideas and misconceptions about Schubert – that he was merely a miniaturist, that his piano works are inferior songs-without-words, that his sonatas can’t hold a candle to those of Beethoven, that the late sonatas are misguidedly poetic; unstructured and wandering ... I would hope that we know better these days, but if this is still a lingering impression you might have inherited from your ancestors, this set will most certainly educate you beyond such antiquated feelings.
 
The actual performance recordings can be a little disconcerting to start with. The director may initially have considered the sight of microphones in front of the piano to be beyond the pale, or he may have been putting noisy cameras as far out of the way as possible. Either way, for the most part our main view is from behind the piano – a black expanse of soundboard hiding the strings. Experienced musicians and concert-goers might feel a little disorientated by hearing the front of the instrument and seeing the back, but it is of course Brendel at work which is the most interesting visual element. In this regard the camera-work is very good – a little conservative perhaps, but with no attempts at distracting special effects, flying cameras, fading, mixing or incontinent zooming in and out. This is of course largely to do with the technical limitations of the time, but also shows how much can be achieved with minimal interference by arty directors; in this way it is the music which speaks with the loudest voice. Later on we do get a more all-round view of the shiny Steinway, and there are views down the length of the piano showing Brendel’s face, whose mannerisms are easily as fascinating as the movement of his hands and fingers. Viewers unfamiliar with Brendel’s playing style will probably find his approach compact and undemonstrative. There are some moments of extreme intensity at which he almost seems to stand in front of the keys, but even then his movements, while intensely expressive, remain economical and un-flamboyant. British audiences seeing Brendel down the length of the grand piano may experience a frisson of recognition, reminded by Brendel’s thickly-rimmed glasses, facial expressions and hairline, of concert-pianist satires by one Eric Morecambe. They will however have to wait a long time before seeing three hands flinging wildly above the woodwork.
 
As far as sound quality goes, I’ve put these DVDs through their paces as far as possible, and, while no-one need be disappointed, there are of course some limitations. Brendel’s fruity German is nicely captured, but there are some minor moments of distortion in some of the examples he plays during the introductions. While the performances themselves have a reliable stereo spread and a rich, possibly too rich piano sound, there is an air of analogue fluffiness around the whole thing which means these recordings will supplement rather than supplant any of the other recordings you may have of Brendel in this repertoire. Comparing the digital cycle he started for Philips in 1987, there are many of the qualities and pretty much all of the intensity in both – just better sound, and certainly greater dynamic contrast in the CDs rather than the DVDs, as you might expect. The principal advantage in the filmed recordings some may find is the absence of vocalisations from the pianist while playing. These contributions have never been as prominent as those of Glenn Gould, but the microphone placement or Eq in the Radio Bremen recordings mean that Brendel’s voice has been filtered out just about entirely – other than in some on the musical illustrations, which merely serves to heighten the point. The point of these DVDs is of course not only entertainment or the preservation of top-notch interpretations, but an education which deepens our appreciation of both Schubert’s and Brendel’s art. As such, the hi-fi considerations need not be so demanding, but as I said before, no-one need feel short-changed by the admirable technical support from Bremen’s Hörfunkstudio.
 
Alfred Brendel is arguably the most outstanding modern exponent of Schubert’s piano music currently performing. He is capable of bringing not only the verve of this music but also its poetic intensity and intellectual depth to life with a special vibrancy. This is true of numerous recordings which he has made throughout his lengthy career, and his Philips discs are still among the top recommendations in this repertoire. The live recordings, Brendel’s own ‘Artist’s Choice’ on Philips 475 7191 should also not be missed. In the mid-1970s Brendel already had twenty years experience as a recording artist, and so any fears that these DVDs will turn out to be dry takes; all spontaneity sapped by studio surroundings and the impassive glare of TV lenses, should be dispelled at once. It would be interesting to compare this with a more recent live single disc DVD of the last three Schubert Sonatas on Philips released as part of Brendel’s 75 birthday celebrations, but I don’t have this newer version to hand. I’m not going to attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of various versions of Brendel’s Schubert recordings, other than to say that he is on reliable, sometimes inspired form in this set. There are of course differences, some subtle, some less so, but few towards which you would point an accusing finger and say one is better or worse than the other. The most important aspect of these DVDs is that, having heard his introductions, you will almost certainly be listening to old favourites with new ears. Brendel is not only keen on illustrating Schubert’s highly inventive approach to harmonic or thematic relationships, but also points out simple associations, such as the characterisation of Schubert’s shorter works like the Moments Musicaux, ideas which you may not have considered or thought about before. Again, you might not always agree with Brendel, but at least your mind will have been set on a path of investigation in seeking reasons for arguing a different point of view.
 
This 5 DVD box is set at an attractive mid-range price. It’s not hard to put a value on insight and learning, and with one of our greatest musical thinkers and pianists playing all of Schubert’s major works for keyboard, throwing light on its compositional substance and at the same time revealing his own highly personal relationship with these masterpieces, I would have to say this is a true bargain. Every serious student should at least have the chance of seeing these films, and as such I would strongly suggest that any self-respecting music library, school or university department must have them. I haven’t even mentioned Jeremy Siepmann’s admirable disc-by-disc booklet notes, but they are the icing on a very rich cake indeed. These discs contain an infinitely fascinating document by a pianist who has been on the international concert scene for decades without losing his magnetism for audiences and critics worldwide. Brendel’s performances of Schubert show just why he is a living legend and dean among contemporary pianists. At well over 9 hours of pure Schubert and Brendel, these DVDs provide total immersion in the worlds of both, and after some extended sessions you may find yourself moving in an economically expressive fashion and speaking with a soft Austrian accent for a while. In all ways these discs provide ample food for aficionados of both Brendel and Schubert, and for everyone who wants to become more familiar with this significant, if not essential part of the piano repertoire.
 
Dominy Clements
 



 


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