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CD: Crotchet

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy in c minor, Op.17 [31:54]
Symphonic Studies, Op.13 [26:10]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
rec. Vienna, 1966. ADD.
ALTO ALC1046 [58:04]
Experience Classicsonline

The qualities of these and other Brendel recordings, made by Vox and Vanguard in Vienna in the early- and mid-1960s, are so well known as almost to need no further recommendation from me.
I remember the excitement caused by the first releases of Brendel’s Mozart on World Record Club. These subsequently became more widely available on the Turnabout label at 19/11 (99p). Several of these formed the nucleus of my Mozart Piano Concerto recordings until the changeover to CD.  His performances of Sonata No.8 (K310), the Fantasy in c (K396), Piano Concertos 9 and 14 with the Solisti di Zagreb, and other solo pieces remain available on an inexpensive 2-CD Vanguard Archive set, ATMCD1890.  Regis offer a budget-price CD of Piano Concertos 17 and 27 with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra and Paul Angerer, one of those Vox recordings that first made the headlines in its WRC incarnation (RRC1154). Tuxedo, in the same price range, offers Concertos 22 and 25 from those early recordings (TUXCD1046).  There’s also a low-price 2-CD Vox set of Concertos 19, 20, the 2-piano Concerto, etc., on CDX5177.
It soon became apparent that Brendel’s talents were not just for Mozart: his Liszt, Beethoven and Schubert also began to attract attention.  Regis have a CD of the complete Schubert Impromptus from the Vox era (RRC1019).  He was soon taken up by Philips, which gave his recordings wider availability.  I particularly treasure his ADD Schubert recordings from this early period with Philips. These include, notably the Impromptus (Philips mid-price 442 543 2) ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia (currently unavailable?) and the late Piano Sonatas, now on 2-CD Philips Duo 438 703 2 - in some ways preferable to his later digital remakes.
The budget label Alto, too, has played its part in making Brendel’s early recordings available. They have a CD of Schubert’s Piano Sonatas Nos.15 and 19 and 16 German Dances (ALC1040), another Brendel recording which has long formed a valued part of my collection in its earlier Vanguard CD incarnation.  Now this new reissue serves to remind us of the virtues of Brendel’s Schumann.
Competition in the Fantasie is much stronger now than it was in 1966 and Brendel’s performance will not be to all tastes.  Though he famously declares that he plays ‘plastered’, this doesn’t mean that his performances are inebriated, merely that he protects his finger tips with strips of sticking plaster.  In fact his version of what many regard as the central plank of the romantic piano repertoire is too cool, too Beethovenian for some.  Personally, I like the way that he reminds us of the extent to which this work stands in the line of development from Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Others will prefer Sviatoslav Richter, recently available in this same, lowest price-bracket on EMI Encore.
Surprisingly, this Encore CD seems to be no longer available. It’s well worth looking for remainders or second-hand copies (5 575233 2, with Faschingsschwank and Papillons). Richter’s version of the Fantasie remains available on a slightly more expensive EMI Great Artists CD (5 62960 2), with the Schubert ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia.  You can download the Encore recording from iTunes but, at £7.99, that’s little cheaper than buying the mid-price version.  There’s also a classic Pollini recording on mid-price DG Originals, also aptly coupled with Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia (447 451 2), available from iTunes for £7.99 – again, a very small saving over buying the CD.
I’d describe Brendel’s playing as reflective rather than cool.  For my taste this is appropriate for a composer who famously considered himself to have an introspective Eusebius side to his personality as well as an impetuous Florestan. The Fantasie, a product of his love for Clara, contains as much Sehnsucht, or longing, as passion. 
The opening movement is marked Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschäftlich zu vertragen, stressing the fantasy and suffering inherent in the music.  Brendel certainly captures both this and the energy in the second movement. Durchaus energisch, wholly energetic, or energetic throughout, says the direction – so it’s not all Eusebius here.  There’s passion in his playing, too, where appropriate.  At times his performance of the final movement brings Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata to mind.  If it weren’t for those reservations that I know exist in some quarters, I’d make this Bargain of the Month.
Richter is slower than Brendel in the outer movements and considerably faster in the second but I never felt that Brendel’s tempi were anything other than right within the context of his overall interpretation.  The difference between his 8:15 and Richter’s 6:45 and Leif Ove Andsnes’s 6:54, on another EMI recording, in the second movement is not reflected in any sense that Brendel is too slow here – as I’ve said, there is actually plenty of energy.  As so often, tempo is less important than keeping the music moving, which Brendel certainly does.
This music is susceptible to a wide variety of emphases and tempi: the highly regarded version by Andsnes on EMI, very recently reissued on budget-price Encore (2 35741 2, with the Piano Sonata No.1) is actually faster than Brendel in the first movement and almost exactly in agreement with him in his tempo for the finale.  If you can tolerate the obtrusive advertising on each track, you can listen to this Andsnes version free on We7.com.  Yet, though Andsnes doesn’t lose sight of the phantastisch and leidenschäftlich elements of the opening movement, I think Brendel captures them slightly better. I don’t think, however, that you’d go far wrong with the Encore reissue and you may well prefer the coupling to Brendel’s
You can also hear Michel Dalberto’s version (Warner Apex, with the Abegg Variations) free on We7, with tempi much closer to Brendel’s than most of the competition.
The other rival in this lowest price-bracket is Alicia deLarrocha on Eloquence 476 9910, which Christopher Howell found too middle-of-the-road and not well enough recorded – see review.
Few will buy this Alto reissue for the sake of the coupling, the Etudes Symphoniques, but these are well worth hearing; Brendel’s playing is idiomatic and sympathetic and he brings the house down in No.12 on the final track.
Prospective buyers need have no serious reservations about the quality of the 1966 recording, the age of which Alto make no attempt to hide. It doesn’t sound fresh-minted but it’s much more than serviceable.  The notes, too, are short but serviceable.  For me this is a marvellous reissue, but bear in mind those reservations which some have expressed and the availability of the Andsnes reissue in the same price-bracket.
Brian Wilson


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