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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas

see end of review for details
Alfred Brendel (piano)
rec. 1992-5
DECCA 478 1821 [10 CDs: 646:55]
Experience Classicsonline

So, are we in a good and sympathetic mood today … or do we feel picky and negative? In my view it is the job of the reviewer to be as objective as possible, and while the commentaries on the past single-disc releases of these recordings are generally very positive, there do always seem to be those voices determined to bad mouth Alfred whenever the opportunity arises. “Brendel zwendel” (swindle) was the aphorism one long-lost friend of mine always applied to him, sometimes in jest, but leaving a damning aftertaste. On the other hand there are those devout followers who will hear no bad word said against such a genius of the piano. These latter will either already have acquired the ‘new digital recordings’ when they came out on single discs in the 1990s, or bought the same box in its Philips edition 446 909 2PH10. Those who haven’t must now be delighted at being able to purchase the entire cycle somewhat more economically in the form of this chunky new Decca box. Hurrah!

If you are interested in obtaining some idea of context in which this set finds itself today, have a look at Jens Laurson’s excellent survey of Beethoven cycles on this site. My own Beethoven sonata ‘summer of love’ 2009 has been spent acquiring the remaining discs of András Schiff’s ECM cycle which I hadn’t managed to obtain as review copies. Since receiving the new Decca box I’ve begged and borrowed a listen on some samples from the earlier Brendel Beethoven recordings, and, while reluctant to go into generalisations it can be said that the Vox recordings are fascinating, if something of a ‘work in progress’ by comparison with some of the later recordings, and rather cold and dry in terms of balance. The 1970s Phillips set is a sonic improvement, with a warmer sound picture. Comparing like for like in a few fairly randomly chosen movements, and one can safely say that the last digital recordings are the best - certainly in terms of sound. On brief and all too superficial comparison I would also argue that the latest recordings are the apogee in terms of Brendel’s musical depth and insight in these works. Critics have pointed out a few individual sonatas that might not necessarily have been improved over time, the two Op.27 sonatas for instance, of which Op.27 No.2 is the famous ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Dipping in casually and taking such performances in isolation, I can’t say I have much by way of complaints in these cases, and I’ll come back to why I think so later. Anyway, I offer apologies to those whose expertise in this area would have provided more historical anecdote and Brendel-based comparative detail, but my principal reference has to be Schiff on his individually available discs, even though at about twice the price, the economical difference between sets is rather extreme.

I chose the Schiff cycle as one of my ‘Recordings of the Year’ in 2009, not only because it is a stunning set of live performances, but because Schiff somehow awakened something in me with regard to the Beethoven piano sonatas that I hadn’t felt before with older generations of pianists like Kempff - the latter’s set admittedly at a disadvantage in my collection, being on scratchy old LPs obtained at a flea-market. Both Brendel and Schiff start with the three Op.2 sonatas on one disc, so one or two comparisons might illustrate what I mean, even in these earlier more ‘classical’ works. Take the Menuetto of the Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.2 No.1. Schiff tiptoes in with the opening theme, leaving space in the dynamic for accents which wrong-foot the listener, and for development later on. Brendel’s approach is more legato and less extreme in the piece’s rhythmic eccentricities, but integrating the melodic line more into the texture of the whole. This has its advantage in the second contrapuntal section, which flowers with marvellous abundance under Brendel’s fingers. Schiff is drier in this middle section, saving some lushness for the parallel notes which form the climax, but at the same time keeping more of a dance feel rather than that of beautifully arching pianistic shapes. One of my favourite movements in these early sonatas is the Largo appassionato of Op.2 No.2. Schiff is measured in the opening ‘pizzicato’ bass, Brendel hardly much faster, but with greater forward momentum. Brendel’s flow between the changing character of the sections in the music is more seamless than with Schiff, maintaining a more stable tempo. Schiff takes more time over the eloquent central melodies and somehow brings out more ‘soul’ and inner drama, even though Brendel’s sense of contrast is hardly less well observed. In the subsequent Scherzo Brendel separates the opening right hand figure from its left hand answer while Schiff holds onto the higher note and allows the intervals to melt into each other more. Different kinds of wit - and I’m still not sure which I prefer.

Comparing Schiff’s live recordings against Brendel, alone in his various locations, might seem a bit like putting chalk up against cheese. I don’t plan on going over the entire cycle point for point, but what I do find for each comparison is that each informs and enriches the other. I know that, were I to listen to either pianist’s reasons for playing something in any particular way, I would end up nodding in agreement, entirely convinced by just about anything either of them said. The results bring about shifts in perspective and personal response, but the innate qualities in both are of the highest order. Schiff’s cycle is done entirely in chronological sequence but Brendel’s skips around here and there. Disc two has the Sonata No.15 Op.28 ‘Pastoral’, with that lovely song-like Andante. Schiff is more energetic with his left hand in this movement, drawing attention away from the melody at the outset, but bringing more shock to the ear as the bass stops entirely and hangs on one note for several bars. Brendel brings variation of length into some of these bass notes, but sings with a bit more subtlety with the right hand, using greater rubato and dynamic contrast to point out the transition back to the exposition repeat. His shaping of the variations is second to none, remaining consistent through the repeated harmonic structures and providing a stable platform from which the depth of Beethoven’s invention emerges with remarkable clarity. Schiff is similarly respectful of structure, but also teases more with greater changes in the character of each variation. Brendel’s approach sounds established and nobly inevitable, Schiff’s as if it is newly minted - a mite dangerous and improvisatory, liable to be changed the next time he plays it. Even though this is no doubt a well planned illusion, it is nonetheless this quality in his playing which keeps me listening.

In a kind of perverse mirror image, there are a few of Schiff’s sonatas, the final three, which were re-taken a while after the original concerts in an empty auditorium. Three in Brendel’s cycle are live as opposed to ‘studio’ takes, sonatas 5 & 6 being introduced with welcoming applause and provided with a few squeaks and noises during the performances. The recordings are very good however, and fit well enough into the set as a whole. Much as I like clean recordings, I do love live performances. You can sense the feeling of communication and on-the-edge wildness in the final Prestissimo of Sonata No.5 Op.10 No.1 and elsewhere, and this contrasts quite sharply with the different atmosphere of studio recording. Mind you, this is only partially true of the Op.10 No.3 sonata with which this disc finishes, which is pretty wild in places, Brendel setting up a real storm in the opening Presto. The remarkable Largo e mesto movement of this sonata deserves a mention here. Brendel takes a magisterial view of this, coming in at 10:28 to Schiff’s 8:12. Schiff is full of drama, but Brendel holds us just as well if not better with a far less ‘sturm und drang’ reading - reflective and poignant as well as filled with sustained and serious intent. 

I’m going to move on to a few more highlights as reference points. The opening of Sonata No.8 Op.13 “Pathétique” can be one of the most dramatic in the cycle. Brendel spins the introduction out a bit too much in my opinion, and the dotted rhythms are not well enough defined to keep the right kind of intensity. Schiff keeps this tight, giving most space to the fantasy of the solo lines and is into the Allegro di molto by 1:34, where Brendel takes off at 1:58. Take off he does however, and the rest is really con brio and no mistake. The singing melody of the following Adagio cantabile will have you humming the tune long afterwards in both recordings. Again however, I am attracted to Schiff’s weighing of the underlying chords here - bringing out certain stresses and making it sound almost as if it could become a jazz ballad. Brendel conjures a different kind of tenderness - more internal and reflective, but as if playing for one other person rather than musing on the ideas with the big crowd in the background as with Schiff. Without wanting to skim over so many great works, the feeling of depth and a lifetime’s experience with these Beethoven sonatas is something on which you can always draw with Brendel. This can be considered a drawback however. Without wanting to criticise Brendel’s performances of some movements as ‘matter of fact’ there can sometimes be the feeling that, with so many notes having passed under the bridge, we can take this as a kind of ‘safe’ option.

Are we feeling pro or anti? One can go either way, demanding more of some kind of poetry; hear the music as uninvolving, see Brendel as past his best and less passionate about his Beethoven, but no, this is in fact not what I think is going on here. So many times we see the wisdom of our elder statesmen of the arts paring their work down, seeking the core, the elemental, the power in simplicity and directness of expression without the need for overt display. I am not saying these sound like an old person’s performances, but what I do hear is Brendel allowing Beethoven’s notes to speak for themselves, perhaps imposing less personality and interpretation on the music, but allowing the depth of Beethoven’s experience to be channelled through his own. This brings us back to those Op.27 sonatas, which Brendel indeed refuses to push around, but I don’t feel that these are particularly inflexible or uninvolving performances. One point at which I nearly threw the entire Schiff set out of the window was on encountering his first movement of the famous “Moonlight” sonata, Adagio Sostenuto where, in order to be consistent with following the score to the letter, he holds the sustain pedal down for the entire movement. Magical discovery or slow car-crash pianistic perversity, the generally accepted view today is that your modern grand piano can’t create the effect Beethoven had in mind on his beaten-up old Broadwood, and Brendel sensibly shifts pedal between changes of chord. Funnily enough, where they do agree is in the tempo of the following Allegretto, which is almost identical in timing for both players.

Some of the best sounding of these recordings are the ones made in The Maltings at Snape, and disc 6 with the set of three Op.31 sonatas revels in this environment. All of these come up remarkably well, from the sternly poetic Adagio of “The Tempest” to the sparking Scherzo of Op.31 No.3. On to disc 7, and one of those openings that haunt me is that of the “Waldstein” Sonata Op.53. Brendel is superb here in my view, light fingered in his traversal of all that swiftly punishing passagework, while keeping plenty of wit in those bouncy octaves and the little melodic inflections which inform the main theme. That special innigkeit is very much part of the Adagio molto which follows, and the final Rondo sounds entirely symphonic. The later A major Sonata Op.101 is superbly crafted, though the eccentricities of rhythm of the quasi-march Lebhaft second movement are once again more powerful with Schiff’s emphasis on the accents. Disc 8 gives us two beautiful performances back to back - that of the Sonata No.27 Op.90, whose opening is less sprightly than that of Schiff, but the weight of which chimes in perfectly with the empfindung of the first movement as a whole. Brendel’s lyricism in the second movement is pretty unbeatable. Op.90 is followed by the “Appassionata”, the dramatic variety from which Brendel holds back nothing. The Andante con moto of this sonata is one of those noble themes which is a touchstone for me, the right kind of performance always bringing a tear to the eye - and this one works very well indeed thank you very much. Talking of drama and lyricism, Brendel’s own voice is often remarked upon as being a bit too audible in his recordings, but aside from a few distant grunts and fairly well hidden moans and sniffs here and there I can’t say there was much to be bothered about in this set.

The “Hammerklavier” recording is another live one, made in the Musikverein in Vienna. Again, the stimulating energy in this, Brendel’s farewell to this work, is electric. Comparing Brendel on top form in a live context against Schiff in similar circumstances is like putting two jungle animals against each other in a struggle for survival, but the struggle is of course Beethoven’s, and both pianists climb their respective mountains with superb skill and musicianship. Both show equal daring, and are as moving in that central Adagio sostenuto, Brendel rather the more sustained and timeless of the two. The final disc brings us the final three sonatas, No. 30 in E major op. 109 a magnificently spacious recording from the Henry Wood Hall, and No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 and No. 32 in C minor op. 111 from the marginally warmer Maltings venue. With Schiff’s recordings of these works also done as ‘studio’ performances comparisons are invited, but short of heaping superlatives on both I am reluctant to compare point for point. Put against Schiff’s live playing I was at first a little put off by a marginally greater sense of remoteness in his recordings of these works, but if you listen to the variety of colour of timbre he brings from the strings of the piano in the more transparent writing of, say, the Gesangvoll final movement of Op.109, then there is clearly as much reward to be found here as elsewhere. Moving to Brendel in this movement and one is at once struck by the forward looking Beethoven, already anticipating Brahms’s touch in the best of that later composer’s piano works. With Schiff I sense the wild and deaf Beethoven himself at the keyboard, with Brendel I sense the status of his music on the world’s stage, past, present and future.

I almost always feel a bit ill after listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas for longer than usual. This is not because of any aversion I have to the music, and certainly not to the performances I have attempted to describe here. This is however such a rich diet of so much powerful music that my cup runneth over after a few days: a bit like eating out at the best restaurants every evening for a month, and we all know what that feels like don’t we. In fact, having lived with Brendel and Schiff through my headphones for a while I don’t feel quite as queasy as I expected to, and in fact I could easily go back for more. It feels more as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this set has to offer. With any such a complete cycle of this kind there will always be performances that grab you more than others, as there are works for which you will have greater or lesser affection. Accepting this to be the case in advance, you should feel free to roam through Brendel’s magnificent achievement and make up your own mind. Thanks to this new Decca re-release, we can now all do this for not much more than the price of three full-price discs, or looking at it differently, each of these 10 discs now work out at budget price for each CD, so if that ain’t a bargain I don’t know what is. In terms of recording quality and consistent brilliance of performance, this still has to be one of the best cycles of Beethoven’s piano sonatas available at any price.

Dominy Clements

CD 1
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5) [17:01]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5) [26:07]
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5) [26:35]
CD 2
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7) [29:47]
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801) [25:41]
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 (1796) [8:18]
CD 3
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7) [19:51]
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7) [14:30]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8) [24:28]
CD 4
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8)
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798) [13:59]
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799) [16:16]
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800) [23:49]
CD 5
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01) [19:23]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01) [15:55]
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801) [15:02]
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 (1797) [8:07]
CD 6
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802) [23:38]
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" (1802) [25:22]
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802) [22:34]
CD 7
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04) [25:14]
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804) [12:03]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816) [21:23]
Andante favori in F major WoO 57 (1803) [9:07]
CD 8
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809) [9:55]
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809) [10:40]
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814) [13:57]
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05) [25:35]
CD 9
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" (1817-18) [44:32]
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10) [16:41]
CD 10
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820) [18:26]
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22) [19:12]
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22) [27:40]

rec. The Maltings, Snape, November 1992 (Nos.16-19, 28), February 1994 (Nos.1-3. 19, 23), October 1994 (Nos.24, 25), December 1995 (Nos.31, 32); Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany, April 1993 (Nos. 12-14, 21, 22, Andante favori), June 1994 (Nos.4, 8-11, 15,20, 26), March 1995 (Nos.7, 27); Frankfurt, February 1995 (Nos.5, 6, live); Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, February 1995 (no.29, live); Henry Wood Hall, London, February 1996 (No.30).



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