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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
CD1 [79:52]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823) [20:23]
Piano Sonata in C major, D840 "Reliquie" (1825) [22:38]
Piano Sonata in G major, D894 (1826) [36:24]
CD2 [75:17]
Piano Sonata in A major, D959 (1828) [38:16]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960 (1828) [37:01]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Live recordings: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, August 1984 (D784, 840); Alte Oper, Frankfurt, September 1998 (D894); The Maltings, Snape, June 1999 (D959); Royal Festival Hall, London, June 1997 (D960).
PHILIPS 475 7191 [79:52 + 75:17]

To me, there is always something special about good live recordings - good live piano recordings in particular. There’s always that slight sense of danger provided by the public: the perversity of audience members who can be guaranteed to explode during the quiet bits. These recordings have plenty of thumps and coughs, but the magic of Schubert, and the magical musicianship of Brendel make up for having missed all of these fine concerts.

Fascinating comparisons are now possible for those who already possess Brendel’s studio recordings on Philips. The live recording of D784 predates Brendel’s 1987 studio version, but direct comparison immediately reveals more life and fire in the live performance: you feel the heavy funereal tread in the repeated two-note motif, contrasting all the more with those truncated, strangely stressful lyrical passages. 4:10 into track one there’s a terrific bang from somewhere in the hall – magnificent! It is so nice to hear that German audiences can be as badly behaved as British ones. Timings for the second Andante movement are similar, and for the final Allegro vivace identical with the studio recording, but again, the sense of drama and extremes of contrast are so much greater in the live performance. From what I have heard of other recordings in the studio set, this would appear to be the trend, so those who already have Philips’ earlier issues need not fear a mere duplication of the studio performances with coughs and sneezes added.

For live performances of D840 it’s tempting to turn to Richter’s remarkable 1979 recording, but with Richter managing to extend the first movement to 22:35 and Brendel coming in at 12:11 it’s like reading Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ and then watching the film version immediately afterwards. Brendel is brisk, and resists all those bizarre rhythmic distortions, but while again exploring the extremes of dynamic range he seems to push the piano to its limits in some passages. Compared to Uchida, his Andante might be felt to lack a little of the poetic potential of this movement – he seems less able to find that treasured ‘innig’ quality, but at the same time his performance also lacks pretension in what is after all one of Schubert’s lighter movements in this set.

With the opening of D894 Brendel completely reveals the sometimes elusive narrative quality in Schubert, taking us on the start of this incredible musical journey in the first fifty seconds in a way which, like the opening paragraph of a good novel, hooks you good and proper. Uchida is of course beautiful here as well, but somehow flat and matter-of-fact in comparison. Brendel teases with subtle rubatos within the tempo, effortlessly transporting the listener into new worlds and leading us down paths where expectations are challenged – glimpses held forth and equally withheld and extended beyond reach and resolution to great effect. Brendel is on top form throughout this sonata, revelling both in its lyricism and the directness of its uncomplicated musical message, hitting us with Schubert’s searching melodies and harmonic brilliance where the music demands, singing, dancing – having the occasional joke – it’s as if Schubert himself is standing at Brendel’s shoulder. At no point did I feel the need to seek alternative interpretations – this is very much ‘the real thing’.

Turning to disc two, and The Maltings acoustic immediately kicks in to raise the sonic stakes for D959. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu’s legendary Fantasia D940 (CBS/Sony) was recorded here after all, so expectations are high, and are not disappointed. The piano sound here is warmer and more welcoming than in the Austrian radio recordings on disc one, while in no way lacking in detail. Making a comparison with Murray Perahia’s own recent Sony recordings of these late sonatas I find Brendel somehow more connected to the emotional content of the music. Perahia is magnificent in pointing out line and counterpoint, but, while I wouldn’t accuse him of turning the piece into an etude, Brendel is in there with moments which melt your ears or have you gritting your teeth with angst. Jorge Bolet’s 1990 (Decca) recording comes closer to Brendel’s in this regard and Uchida is also tough to beat as well, but I kept returning to Snape, and each time was reassured to find Brendel’s ventricle-clenching grip on this music’s inherent power and intensity reasserted: like Bernstein conducting Brahms, Brendel never lets go, and I for one am grateful to Philips for giving us the chance to experience such musical monuments.

For a long time, D960 for me was Valery Afanassiev, also very live and on ECM. Like Richter, Afanassiev is full of compelling Russian eccentricity, and such recordings will always be able to live comfortably side by side on the shelf, possessing reflections on moods and memories which exist nowhere else. It’s a shame that Brendel’s piano sounds thinner and more distant than in The Maltings, but the ear soon becomes accustomed to the Festival Hall acoustic. For some reason the audience noise is more irritating here than in the other recordings – probably because the extended quieter passages are so eloquent and demanding of one’s attention, any distraction is multiplied and magnified. Brendel is commanding however, and falters not.

Interpretations vary widely, and, while I’m not that interested in timings it is interesting to make some comparisons – these are for the first movement of D960:
Afanassiev 22.44
Uchida 21:53
Horowitz (DG rec.1986) 19:13
Perahia 19:00
Brendel 15:05

Brendel makes a convincing case for his shorter timing. There are moments in this movement where time seems almost to stand still, and he in no way glosses over them. I suspect that he is probably closer to Schubert’s intentions in gathering his material into a relatively concise whole, refusing to be drawn into that artificial aura of awe and reverence which can dominate a performance. No one version of D960 can really be said to be ‘perfect’ and I certainly shall not be putting any of my other discs onto Ebay as a result of hearing Brendel, but I do know that this is one of the recordings to which I shall be referring most often in the near future. Taking the second Andante sostenuto movement, Brendel allows the in-built ‘Sostenuto’ to speak for itself, and allows the mind easier access to Schubert’s musical narrative and structural logic by not turning the piece into too much of a musical prayer, by not trying to make it last forever.

This issue is one of those life-enhancing things which I think we are all seeking, and so rarely find when we clatter through the shelves in our local CD shop. It can never be all things to all people, but I find myself asking the question; what’s not to like here? So, there is audience noise – but you just do not find this kind of atmosphere, drama and excitement in studio recordings. So, the locations vary – but the piano sound is always good, and it is in many ways more interesting to be transported from one concert hall to another – it’s like being ‘on tour with Brendel’. At a smidge over 155 minutes there can certainly be no complaints about duration, and just think – counting the cost of all those concert tickets (not to mention planes, trains and taxis) just imagine the money you will have saved by buying this set – as you surely must.

Dominy Clements

 



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