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Alfred Brendel (piano)
Early Recordings: Vol. 2

Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [29:45]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Movements from Petrouchka (1921) [16:07]
Mily BALAKIREV (1836-1910)
Islamey (1869) [8:44]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses S173 No 1: Invocation & No 4 Pensée des Morts (1851) [18:24]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
rec. 1955. ADD.
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
BEULAH 2PS86 [73:25]

A first glance at the listing on this second volume of Beulah’s series of the early recordings by Alfred Brendel would suggest we are in very unfamiliar territory in terms of the great Austrian pianist’s usual repertoire. I assumed that at least three items here were unique to his discography – the Mussorgsky, the Stravinsky and the Balakirev. I was right about two out of the three, but I was surprised to discover that he revisited Pictures at an Exhibition in 1987 for Philips. Intriguingly, that remake also contained the first of the Liszt Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses included here. Strange coincidence or a typical piece of Brendel quirky whimsy?

It turns out that Mussorgsky’s collection of curios and grand visions, based on similarly offbeat paintings by Hartmann, suits Brendel to a t. The Brendel who excels at the tart wit of Haydn, and the Gothic grotesqueries of later Schubert, is in his element. His 1987 recording is really exceptional and, if like me, you haven’t heard it, I can only urge you to make its acquaintance. With its subtlety and delight in the detail of Mussorgsky’s teeming invention, it puts even such illustrious names as Horowitz, Richter and Pletnev in the shade.

So how do Brendel’s first thoughts compare? To begin with the young Brendel is a man in a hurry. Not quite in as much of a hurry as the young Kissin in 2002 on BMG and nowhere near as superficial in his approach. Brendel is already interested in the picaresque and not showing off his technique, something with which Kissin seems solely concerned. The cover photo on Brendel’s 1987 recording shows him peering very closely at some pictures in an art gallery. Both then, and on this earlier recording, that seems to be the difference: Brendel is intent on understanding the individual character of each piece.

Brendel’s dry wit makes these unhatched chicks really cluck and the shimmering tremolos toward the end of Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortuis are chillingly macabre. By 1987, this interpretation has deepened even further, but this first try-out belongs amongst the finest versions of this work. Brendel understands and has the measure of the darker, more serious side of Mussorgsky’s inspiration, the side that spoke to the mature Shostakovich. His way with Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle is heartbreaking. Horowitz may make the Hut on Fowl’s Legs sound like a stampede of wild animals but Brendel’s way is creepier.

Beulah’s sound throughout elegantly walks a tightrope between, on the one hand, bright but brittle and, on the other, resonant but cavernous and booming. In the Mussorgsky in particular, astonishingly, they find a natural sounding ambience in which the piano sound sits, which gives proceedings a real presence. Brendel’s distinctive almost staccato sound is a hard one for remastering to get right and I think Beulah get it just about spot on.

The purchase link (above) will take you to the mp3 download from Amazon, which is fine if you are happy with mp3, but Beulah strongly recommends purchasing their downloads from Qobuz, in lossless sound, as reviewed, for the same price.

The Three Movements from Petrushka, that Stravinsky arranged for Rubinstein to make up for the pianist’s disappointment over Piano Rag Music, seem to be very much in vogue at the moment. In the last few years, we have had fine versions from Beatrice Rana and Daniil Trifonov, though my preference, amongst the young guns, is Yuja Wang’s rendition on DG from 2010, a real barnstormer of an outing. Obviously Brendel can’t compete in terms of sound and, predictably, his approach is less aimed at the gallery than Wang’s. Equally predictably, Brendel refuses to treat the piano as a percussion instrument. Taken together, sound and approach mean that Brendel is nowhere near as viscerally exciting as Wang. Where Brendel scores is in the range of touch he deploys. I cannot hear this piece without the orchestral colours coming to mind and Brendel is adept at finding pianistic equivalents to those instrumental timbres. Wang pulls away from Brendel in the final movement where more old-fashioned showing off is the order of the day. I imagine that Stravinsky, at the second time of asking, knew exactly what Rubinstein was after.

The most unlikely item on this CD would have to be Balakirev’s evocation of the sights and sounds of the Steppes, Islamey. If the Stravinsky is in fashion, this piece, once regarded as the measure of any aspiring klaviertiger, has fallen dramatically from favour. I very much hope that some of the names I listed above can be tempted to take on what remains a highly effective piece. Freddy Kempf gave us a decent account in 2008 but it was a rather over serious affair to my ears. This doesn’t remove the feeling that this music just isn’t Brendel’s forte, though he does show off his Lisztian chops in the final peroration. To make matters worse, this is the worst recorded sound on the disc. To really hear Islamey at its finest, I reacquainted myself with Arrau’s sensational romp through it. The sound is truly diabolical, but the performance has warmth, wit, passion and breathtaking virtuosity. Next to this, Brendel just doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much.

We are on much more familiar ground with the Liszt which completes this intriguing disc. It is clear that, even from the very start of his career, Brendel was one of the greatest of Liszt interpreters. This pair of pieces from the Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses only adds lustre to that reputation. There is some surface noise in the first of them, Invocation, but otherwise the remastered recordings cope well with the dynamic range of the music. Brendel, as always, takes a clear eyed, straight approach to Liszt where others might be tempted to tinker. Some will want more thrills and spills but I prefer this non-sensationalist attitude.

Inevitably a recording like this ends up a bit of a mixed bag compared to a planned recital. If my main conclusion is to urge the reader seek out Brendel’s exceptional 1987 version of Pictures at an Exhibition, I mean no offence to this very fine and finely remastered disc.

David McDade



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