> The Alfred Brendel Collection [CH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Volume 1:
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat, K. 271, Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat, K. 449
with I Solisti di Zagreb/Antonio Janigro
Recorded Vienna 1966
Volume 2:

Sonata in A minor, K. 310, Fantasy in C minor, K. 396, Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Variations in D on a Minuet by Duport, K. 573.
Recorded Vienna 1968
Volume 3:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Sonata in C minor, D. 958, Sonata in C, D. 840, Deutschestänze, D. 783
Recorded Vienna 1968
Volume 4:
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Phantasie in C, op. 17, Symphonic Studies, op. 13
Recorded Vienna 1966
Volume 5:
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Polonaise in A flat, op. 53, Polonaise in C minor, op. 40/2, Polonaise in F sharp minor, op. 44, Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, op. 61, Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat, op. 22
Recorded Vienna 1968
Volume 6:
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Rhapsodies: 2, 3, 8, 13, 15, 17, Csárdás obstiné
Recorded Vienna 1968
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99351 [6 CDs, 55í43", 51í03", 59í46", 57í49", 50í14". 45í32"]


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In 1966 Brendelís Vox years came to an end. At the age of thirty-five he already had a reputation as a leading interpreter of the German-Austrian classical repertoire and many voices were raised in favour of his claims to be taken up by a major company, so that he could be heard in first-class sound and with concerto and chamber partners on the highest level. As we all know, the waiting period was not so very long, he was duly signed up by Philips and the rest is history. In the meantime he set down six LPs for Vanguard, issued during 1969, which have been rather forgotten in the light of his subsequent achievements.

Brilliant have been busy obtaining licensing agreements for a wide range of recordings from various sources no longer trading and, if a lot of these come into the "good-value-at-the-price" category, here they deserve to be considered public benefactors, for the importance of these recordings, which document Brendelís early maturity, cannot be overstated.

They are also to be commended for leaving intact the single-composer format of the original LPs, when the material could have been squeezed into 5 CDs without much difficulty Ė but at a heavy price in view of the logical ordering of the original programmes. The transfers are of excellent quality; certain criticisms of the sound made by reviewers at the time seem not to apply here. I did find a slight rattle accompanying the heavier passages of the Chopin disc. Uncertain as to what it was, I tried moving various ornaments in my listening-room which might have been responsible, but to no avail, while the problem did not persist in the other discs, so the defect must belong to the record. For the rest the sound is fully up to the standards of the period.

Less fortunate is the decision to issue the set without notes of any kind. Certainly, weíve all read notes so pointless that it would have been better to have none, but the notes to the Liszt LP at least were by Brendel himself (I canít speak for the others) and itís a pity not to have those (but does the license to issue the recording necessary include the notes?). The 6 CDs each come in their individual jewel-cases (so theyíll take up a fair bit of space compared with most multi-CD sets), quite nice as far as they go, but giving details only of the works to be played, the performerís name and the place and year of recording. Still, the records speak for themselves as few do.

Volume 1

Brendelís concerto discs during his Vox period were all too often put together hurriedly with third-rate orchestras. I seem, incidentally, to have aroused the wrath of an Austrian reader when, in my review of the Vox birthday tribute, I ventured to suggest that Paul Angerer (the conductor of many of those Mozart concerto recordings) had been a fine musician. Objecting to both my judgement and my use of the past tense, he assured me that "unfortunately" Angerer is still alive and making music. Well, Iíll come back to that if I get more Angerer discs to review. The important thing at the moment is that the orchestral support in this solitary Vanguard concerto recording is on a very high level indeed.

The cellist and conductor Antonio Janigro (1918-1989) was a musician well worth remembering on his own account. He was Milanese but transferred to Zagreb in 1939. He was an extremely fine cellist whose Westminster recording of the Dvorak concerto, once available on a World Record Club LP, was my introduction to the work. Despite the occasionally lumbering conducting of Dean Dixon I hold fond memories of it and hope it has not disappeared for ever. However, it is perhaps as founder (in 1954) and conductor (until 1967) of I Solisti di Zagreb, originally a 12-strong string group but able to call on wind players when required (as here), that he is mostly remembered, having recorded with them quite extensively for Vanguard in the 1960s. The orchestral contribution to K.449 need fear no comparison with Brendelís later recording under Marriner; indeed, the outer movements have an open-hearted joyfulness Ė to which Brendel responds Ė which makes Marriner seem just a mite over-preened. Tables seem to be turned in the slow movement where Marriner draws the melodic lines with a magical intensity; truth to tell the music sounds a bit ordinary chez Janigro until the piano enters. Seem to be turned. The trouble is, from that point on it emerges that the slower tempo in the Marriner version is less than perfectly judged in terms of the pianoís sustaining power, with the result that Brendel seems a shade effortful whereas his playing in the Zagreb version is gloriously natural. So, by a very small margin, the performance reviewed here is preferable; Brendel positively bubbles with joy in the outer movements, both here and in K. 271.

In the slow movement of this latter concerto Brendel and Janigro seem agreed in probing the depths of the music quite harshly. A very different approach (I donít say one is better than the other; but I guarantee you much illumination if you can hear them side by side) is to be heard from Géza Anda, in whose account the music becomes suffused with proto-romanticism. (I reviewed the Anda performance as part of an otherwise unrecommendable DG Panorama 2-CD package; look out for it coupled with other Anda Mozart performances would be my advice).

With the 1966 recording still sounding very well this is a disc to be remembered alongside Brendelís more famous later Mozart recordings.

Volume 2

Brendel has only in recent years become a wholehearted convert to Mozartís solo piano writing. Back in 1968 he nevertheless made a characteristically enquiring selection. The centre-piece is obviously the A minor Sonata. Brendel takes Mozartís direction "Allegro maestoso" for the first movement as meaning exactly that. His steady unfolding of it gives due weight to the famous opening theme and allows the second subject material to have an Olympian calm when it is in the major (in the exposition) and much poignancy when it returns later (in the recapitulation) in the minor. The following movement is notable for the singing quality Brendel gives to music that can seem bare and (immediately after the double bar) ungainly in other hands. His handling of recapitulation is particularly inspired. While he brings much controlled passion to bear upon the finale, Mozartís extraordinary flirt with almost suicidal desperation.

It would be interesting to know whether the compromise between Mozartís own unfinished violin and piano autograph of K.396 and Stadlerís completion of it is Brendelís own. Either way it is convincing and draws from Brendel a dignified, unhurried performance, as does the A minor Rondo. Here the tempo is fearlessly slow, finding depths which leave Rubinsteinís more flowing version sounding merely amiable. Speaking not so long ago of the Brautigam recording on the fortepiano I pointed out that the use of the original instrument does not prevent the left hand chords from sounding clumpy if the pianist does nothing to unclump them. Brendel, even more than Rubinstein, demonstrates that the modern grand, by virtue of its wider range of sound, is actually more, not less able than the fortepiano to attenuate this aspect of Mozartís writing Ė it all depends on the pianist. In the Variations he takes on a piece which is often regarded as Mozart at his most vapid and vindicates it by the crystalline clarity and grace of his execution.

All in all, this is Mozart playing of the highest calibre and should be heard in all the musical academies of the world as a demonstration that scrupulous observance of the composerís text in no way inhibits a free-flowing, spontaneous performance of it.

Volume 3

Brendel has been particularly famed for his Schubert, but oddly enough it is here that I have some difficulty in tuning into his wavelength. I found his Vox "Wanderer" almost aggressively upfront, and in much of the present disc I feel the lack of that gentle ease of movement which forms the backdrop to Schubertís tragic vision. Much of the C minor Sonataís first movement is coruscatingly brilliant, tensely dramatic, while the second subject material is gravely beautiful. But was there really any need to change the tempo, given that the effect is that of an alternation between forging ahead and holding back? And, profoundly as Brendel digs into the slow movement, might not a greater sense of forward movement have made it more, not less, poignant? This point seems to be confirmed by the second movement of the unfinished C major Sonata, where the more flowing tempo seems to me absolutely ideal. Brendel may point out that this latter is an Andante while the movement from the C minor work is an Adagio. To which I can only reply that the first movement of the C major piece may set out as a Moderato in this performance but it frequently flexes its muscles at a full Allegro. At the other extreme, at least one Richter performance of this work is to be found which, partly through observing the exposition repeat (Brendel omits this in both Sonatas) but principally by a very slow tempo, the first movement is made to last more than double compared with the present disc. However, a middle way need not necessarily spell safe boredom.

Regarding the Menuetto and Trio of the C minor Sonata I think there can be no disagreement. This movement often seems insignificant between its towering neighbours. Here it is slow enough (but not heavy) for all its wistful poetry to make its point. And in the Finale Brendel masterfully employs a range of tempos without ever losing sight of the basic Tarantella rhythm. The German Dances, too, are remarkable for the range of mood and expression Brendel finds in pieces that look very innocent on paper.

The quality of the pianism is nowhere in doubt and the recording wears its years lightly. The particular interpretative standpoint could not be better presented. If you are searching for your ideal C minor and C major Sonatas, you had better try to work out from my descriptions of the two first movements whether you think you will find them here.

Incidentally, while the reviews of these discs that came out on their first release generally amount to a catalogue of praise, this one was controversial from the start. The EMG Monthly Letter (12/1969) positively railed that "Brendel seems to be getting more and more mannered and the great C minor sonata almost disintegrates under his fingers". Gramophoneís Joan Chissell, on the other hand (12/69), was "lost in admiration at the way he keeps the [first] movement wholly Schubertian in spite of its several Beethovenian C minor gestures", though she too found the "drastic slowing down" for the second subject to be "provocative".

Volume 4

Though Brendel has always had a place for Schumann in his repertoire, his performances have sometimes been more appreciated than loved. Schumann is not a composer who gives up his secrets easily to the intellectual pianist, a thing that Brendel is inclined to be at times. Perhaps I should nail my colours to the mast and say that for me the supreme interpreter of the Phantasie, and the first movement above all, is Martha Argerich. In her hands the surges of emotion, the questionings, the hesitations, the bursts forward, are all held together by the tinglingly present sense of infatuated abandon which runs through the whole movement. Alongside this I have never been able to understand the motivation for a performance like Rubinsteinís where the emotion is recollected in such tranquillity that the structure of the piece almost falls apart. Brendel is certainly nearer the mark than that. However, while his opening is majestic it is also slightly underwhelming and the many fine passages do not disguise the fact that his actual tone, so "right" in Beethoven, seems a little matter-of-fact here. Still, if you feel that Argerich lives too dangerously you might try this.

The Beethoven-inspired middle movement has everything to benefit from Brendelís sense of forward movement but what makes this disc important is the finale. Here Brendel the poet speaks.

Brendelís tone is a mystery unto itself, and seems beautiful in direct proportion to the extent to which his heart is engaged. When he is out of sorts he can bash mercilessly, but hear what a thing of beauty he makes of Schumannís great love-song, with the notes suspended in the air and the melodic lines and the iridescent harmonies twining around each other. This Phantasie may have started as merely a very good performance but itís a great one by the end.

The Symphonic Studies get a sterling reading, strong on the symphonic aspect (momentum builds up steadily all through) and very observant of all Schumannís markings. The last ounce of mercurial poetry may be missing but the performance is far from unfeeling, and rises to great eloquence in the last variation before the finale, its two voices wonderfully independent against a barely perceptible murmuring accompaniment. So this is a Schumann disc you will need to have.

Volume 5

Chopin is certainly not a composer we associate with Brendel and to the best of my knowledge the present disc has remained a one-off. Brendel has explained in various interviews that this does not reflect any lack of love for the music, but he feels that all the great Chopin interpreters have been specialists in this particular composer, something he has not wished to become. It is a pity that this solitary foray is limited to just one aspect of the composerís work. It is nonetheless a very fine disc. A majestic energy courses through these performances, holding together the structures of even the massive F sharp minor and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. But poetry is not lacking, nor is singing tone nor a feeling for the right rubato, for the interplay of melodic lines and for the composerís harmonic movement. The only concrete reservation is that op. 22 lacks Rubinsteinís sheer mercurial lightness and therefore becomes a shade heavy.

So was Brendel talking out of his hat when he decided to leave Chopin for the specialists? Well, maybe not entirely. On a bar-to-bar basis there is little to be said, but overall I did feel a lack of that national fervour which informs the greatest performances of these works. If these Polonaises, as presented here, sometimes seem to have been written by Liszt, it is, I believe, because at their heart they show more of an intellectual curiosity for the Polonaise-rhythm than a proud identification with it. Even so, Brendelís emotional commitment is not to be doubted and these are performances with more to say than many so-called "specialist" ones; they should be heard by all lovers of the composer.

And the whole Brendel-Chopin story may not be here, for he included the F sharp minor Polonaise in a Venice recital (occasionally re-broadcast by Italian radio) during the same year that he set down this disc and threw all caution to the winds, shaving more than a minute of the timing here. It is a stunning performance and I wonder how many other Brendel-Chopin performances are conserved in various radio archives from the few years in which he included this composer in his programmes.

Volume 6

Brendel has always been a great and convinced Lisztian, and in this disc he takes on the very aspect of Lisztís output which contributed more than any other to the tarnishing of his image. The result is wonderful beyond all belief. Brendel does not play down the gypsy elements, nor does he sober up the schmaltz or straighten out the rubatos. Yet all these elements are visited with poetry, with a luminous ease of sonority which, more than elevating the music to the level of great art, reveals to us that it always had been so, even if we had failed to understand it as such. There seems little point in adding more: this is one of the great Liszt recordings.

By the way, the cover lists two of the Rhapsodies as being "no. 13". The first of them is actually no. 3.

In many ways this set gives us a portrait of Brendel at the first peak of his career. Fully mature, he had scarcely begun to let his search for musical meaning lead him into the more mannered paths which have sometimes blighted his later work.

Christopher Howell

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