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 (http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2004/May-Aug04/Kurtag239.htm
), 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: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Jan02/Beethoven_Emperor_Schnabel.htm
) 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
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
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)
A superb set, then, and
one that perhaps opens a new chapter in Alfred Brendel’s activities?
One hopes so.