Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations, Op.120 (1823) [53:05]
Bagatelle in A minor, WoO59 Für Elise (1808-10) [2:45]
Rondo a Capriccio in G major, Op.129 Rage over A Lost Penny (1795) [6:07]
Seven Variations on ‘God Save the King’ in C major, WoO78 (1803) [8:43]
Five Variations on ‘Rule Britannia’ in D major, WoO79 (1803) [4:29]
Six Easy Variations on a Swiss Air in F major WoO64 (before 1793) [2:52]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
rec. c.1961-64
ALTO ALC1194 [78:32]
A good while back I reviewed the 35 CD set on Brilliant [93761] that contained Brendel’s complete Vox, Turnabout and Vanguard solo recordings. It was more of a capsule review and I barely touched on most of the recordings. This disc, likewise, is drawn from that legacy, and all performances are licensed from Vox.
This immediately causes problems. Yes, this Alto is inexpensive and it does contain Brendel’s first studio thoughts on the Diabelli Variations. However, should you want to get Brendel’s thoughts on the Diabelli Variations, surely you’d go for a Philips recording — much more recent, more mature, better recorded. And if you did, nevertheless, fancy this early 1960s recording, why not shell out a not financially ruinous amount and get the whole legacy on 35 CDs in a handy box?
The question posed, let’s consider the performances. Brendel’s Diabelli is by no means callow. It is in fact, despite my suggestion above, a seriously mature piece of work, though not yet as considered, or as well recorded come to that, as it was to become. There are points where Brendel can be rather swift or, towards the final variations, where he maybe anatomizes to the detriment of the expressive power of the music. Of its digital power no one can be in doubt. Brendel plays with trenchant control, with a truly animating left hand and an acute perception of the music’s rhythmic emphases. What it does somewhat lack — and this is surprising given the Brendel we know today — is a lack of humour. It’s a quality he has as good as conceded was rather absent in his earliest Beethoven recordings. The Philips disc recorded live at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1976 was a good deal lighter on its feet. It had a similar sense of engagement, a powerful and energetic current, but it was wittily and more variously expressed. Then too there is his 1988 disc of the variations, which is perhaps even more characterful.
No complaints about the makeweights here, which cleverly consist largely of variations. The playing is somewhat more dapper than in the Diabelli, and often infectiously exciting, but not overdone.
Still, the question as to whether to pick up this disc in preference to latter recordings is one I can only repeat.
Jonathan Woolf
A seriously mature piece of work, though not yet as considered, or as well recorded, as it was to become.

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