Brendel at his Best

Michael Lukey

viernes, 9 de noviembre de 2007
Alfred Brendel: Unpublished Live and Radio Performances 1968-2001. Ludwig van Beethoven. 33 Variations in C major on a waltz by Anton Diabelli op.120. Frédéric Chopin. Andante spianato & Grande polonaise in E flat major op.22. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Variations sérieuses op.54. Ferruccio Busoni. Elegien 3 & 6. Ludwig van Beethoven. Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major op.101. Alfred Brendel, piano. Recording producers for BBC Radio 3: Peter Thresh, Misha Donat, Christopher Marshall. Balance engineers for BBC Radio 3: Neil Pemberton, Steve Portnoi. Two compact discs, total playing time 114 minutes. Recorded at BBC Studios, London, 13 May 1968 (Chopin); Royal Festival Hall, London, 25 March 1990 (Mendelssohn), 22 October 1997 (Busoni), 30 May 2001 (Beethoven op.120); Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26 November 1992 (Beethoven op.101). Philips 475 8322
The release of the latest instalment of Philips’ Artist’s Choice series of CDs devoted to Alfred Brendel seems to have been kept surprisingly quiet. Brendel writes in his introductory notes that the collection "aims to bring together a majority of those performances I’d like to ask my listeners to consider in preference to all others", and the present double disc includes a number of previously unreleased live/radio recordings. In most cases it is not difficult to see why Brendel made his choice – he is well known for relishing the presence of a good audience, and the beneficial effects, especially in the form of increased spontaneity, are apparent in many of the tracks here.

The whole of Disc One is devoted to a new release of the Diabelli Variations, a live performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall recorded on May 30th, 2001. This is Brendel’s fourth recording of the work, and he writes of this concert performance that it is "now my favourite". I rather share his feeling. The pianist’s first recording of the Variations, for Vox/Turnabout, is the easiest of the competition to dismiss, and contrasts strongly with Brendel’s later, deeper conception of the work. However, it is fair to say that the differences between the final three recordings (another concert performance, also at the Festival Hall, this time from 1976; a studio recording from 1988; and the version on the present disc) are more slight. In favour of the studio recording is, inevitably, the absence of wrong notes, and also a more attractive recorded sound. On the other hand, the all-important pauses between variations are far more effective in the less edited live recordings. In favour of the 2001 live version over the concert from twenty five years earlier is the fact that the piano seems to survive the recital in better condition, and also that Brendel’s originality and spontaneity seem greater than ever in his seventy-first year! What’s more, although there are occasional slips and loses of forward movement in 2001, enough technique remains for a fully convincing performance. It should be noted that this is not just a recording of the Diabellis for Brendel enthusiasts; indeed, it ranks among the very finest versions committed to disc, and along with recordings by Schnabel, Kovacevich, Serkin, Rosen, and Pollini, can be recommended to all music lovers.

Disc Two contains more core Brendel repertoire, but also some music less commonly associated with the man. “Occupied Poland!” is how one critic greeted Brendel’s only Chopin release (the Polonaises on Vanguard). Having heard his interpretation of the Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise for the first time in the 1968 BBC radio recording on this disc, the comment strikes me as being unfair. Undoubtedly Brendel’s playing tends towards the Germanic in character, but he shows considerable flexibility and also a great sense of fun in what is the last of Chopin’s polonaises in the "elegantly flamboyant virtuoso style" (Jeremy Siepmann) that characterised the composer’s youthful works in this genre. This is not a recording to write off, but rather one to complement the more idiomatic interpretations by certain pianists more closely connected with Chopin.

Next come Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, a work also included in the third and final volume of Brendel’s sets in the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century range from eight years ago. The latter recording was made in the studio in 1991, while the recording on this Artist’s Choice disc is a concert performance, again at London’s Festival Hall, from March of the previous year. Again, while nobody could argue that the two versions differ from one another greatly, I concur with Brendel’s preference for the live recording. It is here that Brendel sounds very slightly more comfortable in a technical sense, and this seems to allow him greater freedom to vary colour and dynamics.

Busoni’s elegies, Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu dir (My soul hopes and fears for thee) and Erscheinung (Apparition) are from a set of seven, which began life as a group of five bearing the title Nach der Wendung (After the turn), referring to the composer’s sudden, dramatic, and indeed late turn to a more radical harmonic style. Brendel’s 1997 performance at the Festival Hall is powerful and well-recorded, the piano strikingly becoming like an entire orchestra in Erscheinung, a study for Busoni’s opera Die Brautwahl.

Brendel writes that the performance included here of Beethoven’s A major sonata, Op.101, recorded live at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in November 1992, reproduces his musical intentions "more faithfully and immediately than did the perhaps more 'mpeccable' studio recording". We already have three other recordings of this piece by Brendel with which to compare the concert performance, and again the concert performance stands up well. Enhanced spontaneity in front of an audience is once more the greatest factor favouring this version, and is especially notable in the concluding fugal movement. As with the Diabelli Variations, this performance is worthy of being ranked among the greatest on disc; a fitting end to a superb release.


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