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.
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
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
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.
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
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".
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
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.
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.
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.