Not long ago I was reviewing a Brilliant Classics set (99351)
of Brendelís Vanguard recordings (6 CDs), including his 1966 version of
K.271 with I Solisti di Zagreb conducted by Antonio Janigro. That performance
had a humming vitality which already marked it out. The remarkable thing
is that thirty-five years later Brendel has lost none the freshness of
his early maturity, and added a whole range of insights as well.
I will just try to list a few of them. Shortly after
his entry in the first movement (his entry proper, not the few "surprise"
bars that the piano has, alone among Mozart concertos, at the very start),
his left-hand passage work glistens the first time round, but now it
takes into account all the shifts of harmony. Then, at the second subject,
while previously the left-hand was subdued to a barely-audible murmur
(the sort of balance between the hands we lesser mortals try to obtain),
now, without any exaggeration, he lets us hear how the melody is accompanied
by triplets whereas at its first appearance, on the orchestra, the accompaniment
consisted of simple quavers.
I noted of the 1966 performance that the slow movement
did not attempt the hushed proto-romantic atmosphere of Géza
Andaís recording, but enquired profoundly into the harmonic make-up
of the music. Now Brendel digs no less deeply into these intellectual
matters and provides a hushed proto-romantic atmosphere. For
this Sir Charles Mackerras deserves equal praise and in comparison I
must say that Janigro, joyfully positive in allegros, maybe lacked a
mite of poetry in a movement like this.
In the finale I particularly noted the way Brendel
seemingly stumbles across the new minuet tempo as if itís the last thing
he expected to find there. It is unusual, of course, but how
remarkable to maintain that sense of quixotic wonder after a lifetime
of playing the piece.
Unquestionably, this new performance is the more searching,
the more complete of the two (and the recording is fuller and rounder,
though the old one is pretty good for the date), but you will learn
such a lot about the music by having both and listening to how
and why it is better that I can only urge you to get the Brilliant
Classics set (an incredible bargain in any case) as well. What I donít
have to hand, unfortunately, is the recording from Brendelís first cycle
with Marriner, so I am unable to report how many of these new insights
were already in place by then.
Mackerras on his own, we know, is inclined to be a
brisk, vital Mozartian, but he shows his very great skill in K.503 by
seeing that Brendelís rather broad tempi never drag or become heavy.
This is a performance that respects Mozartís maestoso in the
first movement without ever trying to make the concerto sound like proto-Beethoven.
There is an Olympian calm about it all, and also great inventiveness
from Brendel as he refines and decorates the text and yet avoids any
sense of mannerism. His embellishments to the slow movement are fascinating
and I laughed out loud at one point in the finale. I must also mention
the first movement cadenza (by Brendel himself) where he goes quite
outrageously beyond any Mozartian harmonic scheme and yet remains totally
in keeping with the character of the music.
Again, I havenít been able to check out his earlier
versions, but in any case, while Brendel in his mid-seventies continues
to perform with such rightness and such character, even if you have
every other version of these two works that has ever been made, you
should get this one too.
The notes by Wolfgang Rehm (in English, French and
German) are good though his insistence on the "brilliance"
of K.503 suggests that, as so often happens, he had not actually been
able to hear the performance he was writing for.