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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete works for piano and cello
Sonatas: No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2a (1796) [24’51]; No. 4 in C, Op. 102 No. 1a (1815) [16’34]; No. 3 in A, Op. 69a (1808) [26’46]; No. 5 in D, Op. 102 No. 2b (1815) [20’31]; No. 1 in F, Op. 5 No. 1b (1796) [25’19]. Twelve Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Die Zauberflöte, Op. 66a (1796) [7’11]. Twelve Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Judas Maccabaeus, WoO45b (1796) [8’34]. Seven Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from Die Zauberflöte, WoO46a (1801) [10’12].
Alfred Brendel (piano); Adrian Brendel (aJunuarius Galliano 1741 cello; bAntonio Stradivari ‘Leveque’ cello, 1683-90).
Rec. Jugenstiltheater, Vienna, on aJuly 2nd-8th, 2003 and bJuly 1st-5th, 2004.
PHILIPS 475 379-2 [78’50 + 68’55]


This twofer will surely give huge amounts of pleasure. The field for the Beethoven cello sonatas is not so hotly contested. Schiff (Heinrich) and  Fellner, also on Philips curiously, offer an identical programme; the great Rostropovich and equally great Sviatoslav Richter on Philips 50 464 677-2 offer a compulsive viewpoint, and fans of du Pré of course are well-served (with Barenboim the unsurprising choice of pianist) on EMI’s budget Double Forte label (CZS5 73332-2). If Fournier/Gulda is still available, or if you see it in the bargain bins, snatch it up (DG Dokumente 437 352-2).

But of course there is something hugely compelling about this particular father-son partnership. True these are works for piano and cello, but we still need a large-personalitied cellist … will the Adrian variety of Brendel fit the bill?. He has a huge amount to live up to, after all. And, despite my doubts about Brendel père’s fingerwork live at the RFH last September ( ), all seems to be as secure as ever in the studio. Production values are of the highest, from the ordering of works (we start with No. 2, then 4 and 3 on disc 1 with the ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Variations providing a delightful close to disc 1; disc 2 sandwiches Nos. 5 and 1 – in that order – between the Maccabaeus and ‘Bei Männern’ Variations) to the knowledgeable and readable booklet notes (Misha Donat).

Beginning with the second sonata means opening with an extended slow introduction (‘Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo’), a decision that immediately lends the project a sense of space, setting up an atmosphere that precludes rushing. So expansive is the introduction (5’35) that it has a track all to itself. Under the Brendels, the music casts a rapt spell. The recording of the cello is particularly fine, warm yet not boomy, and this helps Adrian’s  legato (I use first names for ease of reference, it does not imply any personal familiarity with the players!).

In fact the cello phrasing is very appealing - try the very first phrase of the Allegro molto. Brendel père is the perfect chamber partner, reacting to Adrian’s interpretation with split-second accuracy. Of course, Brendel pianist enjoys Beethoven’s sometimes cheeky humour (Alfred is rightly famous for his Haydn, after all), and his articulation at speed is miraculous. This is a captivating account that on its own terms leaves nothing to be desired. However, comparison with Schnabel/Piatigorsky (1934 HMV account, on Naxos 8.110640: ) shows immediately what we are missing. Again, there is a great pianist doing the honours, but in the Naxos case there is an equally great cellist. Together they penetrate into Beethoven’s world in a way the Brendels cannot. In Schnabel/Piatigorsky’s hands, there is not a shadow of doubt that his is a masterwork. The Brendels present it as good Beethoven.

Op. 5 to Op. 102 is a large leap, but nevertheless that is what is up next on Philips. The soliloquising cello of the opening reveals here the Brendels are at one in concentration level. Alfred’s playing is perhaps the more rapt, but it is a close-run thing, and the Andante contrasts beautifully with the main Allegro vivace, serious of intent and lit up by Adrians gritty tone. The Adagio opening section of the finale second movement brings with it a truly gorgeous sense of stillness (the beautifully-proportioned recording helps); much energy and high spirits contrast later on. The Brendels’ greatest strength here is that they capture the later-period Beethoven’s abrupt juxtapositions well, as well as his use of silence as integral to the musical fabric.

The A major Sonata Op. 69 (contemporary with the Fifth Symphony), giving us the mid-period sonata of disc 1, is magical. The dialogues are a joy, and there is a warm, middle-period glow to much of this. The Brendels never lose sight of the larger structures, yet there are so many moments of magic on the way (try the lovely hushed thematic statement at 10’57ff).

The echt-Beethovenian play of the Scherzo evidently captures both Brendels’ imagination, as well as kindling their humour, while a delightful open-air feeling pervades the finale. This Op. 69 makes for an excellent complement to the Rostropovich/Richter, a highly dramatic account from the early ‘sixties and still sounding clear and proud (I used the DG Panorama transfer for comparative purposes, 469 109-2; see also Philips 50 464 677-2).

The first of the Variations is the ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ set. Less demanding fare than the Sonatas, certainly (Diabelli is a long way off), but much to admire in execution (both composer and, on this occasion, performers). The Brendels at once give the impression of letting their hair down, yet simultaneously lavishing huge care on each and every variations (the variations are separately tracked, by the way). Beethoven’s variations are magnificent in their own way. Try the cello stopping in Variation IV. And the cheeky end is the way to end a disc!

Disc 2 begins with the delightful Judas Maccabaeus Variations. Alfred presents the theme beautifully. In fact, he sparkles throughout (try his pearly touch in Variation 5), while the two together conspire to provide a gorgeous unfolding in the eleventh (Adagio).

But it is the juxtaposing of Op. 102 No. 2 with Op. 5 No 1 that is the most revealing facet of this second disc. Op. 102 No. 2 finds Beethoven initially in a rather approachable D major. Yet the second movement (‘Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto’) shows how the Brendels excel in late-period Beethoven. Lyrically concentrated and imbued with gorgeous pianissimi, the playful yet compositionally complex finale provides the perfect end to this sonata.

The first sonata, Op. 5 No. 1, comprises two movements, but the first of these is huge (over 18 minutes in this performance). Nevertheless, it is pure delight, the allegro playful from both players, dotted rhythms always spot on throughout. The second (Rondo finale) movement reveals a liveliness that suggests Adrian brings out the youth in Alfred?

Finally, Seven Variations on ‘Bei Männern’ from Die Zauberflöte brings much joy but also perhaps surprising profundity in the sixth (Adagio) variation.

A superb set, then, and one that perhaps opens a new chapter in Alfred Brendel’s activities? One hopes so.

Colin Clarke


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