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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4
Piano Concerto No. 5 'Emperor'

Alfred Brendel (piano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Hans Wallberg (4)· Zubin Mehta (5)
rec 1960s?
REGIS RRC 1047 [72:35]
For around £6 per disc from your dealer

Here's one for sentimentalists or those fascinated by the history of twentieth century piano playing. Alfred Brendel has recorded three Beethoven Piano Concerto cycles - with Haitink, Levine and Rattle. The first and third, in particular, are generally considered seminal examples of this great pianist's development as an interpreter of Beethoven. But about fifteen years earlier still, when Brendel was turning thirty years old, the almost unknown young player was offered the opportunity by the ever-adventurous American independent Vox Records to record the fourth and fifth concertos. The result, alongside solo recordings for Vox of music that Brendel would later drop from his repertoire, helped launch his career. His later signing by Philips - then a major player in the classical recording business - set the seal on what was to become a remarkable journey through the great masterpieces of Austro-German classicism.

Listening to these forty-year old recordings today has something of a 'through a glass darkly' feel to it. The recorded sound - never Vox's strong suit - is often muddy and there are occasional small distortions in sforzandi and climaxes. The stereo is real enough and fortunately the piano is both forwardly balanced and well tuned.

The overall impression is of a young man who is already a master musician. There are no hints of any impetuous exaggerations nor lack of an absolute conviction in what he wants to say. Throughout this CD I marvelled at the subtlety and understanding of Brendel's vision of Beethoven. Time and time again he communicates at a level few can equal today. The Vienna Symphony (Vienna Pro Musica on the original Vox/Turnabout sleeves) was hardly in the same class. Some of the playing (under a sleepy Wallberg and a very youthful and fiery Mehta) is comical rather than distressing. In a way this only serves to point up the genius of the young Brendel even more clearly.

When such naïve orchestral playing and recorded balance coincide there can often be an unexpected bonus. In both concertos details of Beethoven's orchestral accompaniment are here discernible in way that is usually hidden in 'better' recordings. Examples include a very 'period instrument' sounding timpani at the end of the 'Emperor' and a valuable viola figure accompanying the piano (usually lost in the acoustic mush) at 7.07 in the concerto's opening movement. One's usual conclusion on these occasions is to either blame the composer for poor orchestration (which I would not do in the case of Beethoven) or hope that conductors in future would take note and ensure that a better balance can be achieved.

In the Fourth Concerto, Brendel opted to include the then rarely heard alternative first-movement cadenza, which he played wonderfully. The subsequent exaggerated 'rit' at the very end of the coda should only be seen as an interesting example of performance style of the period.

Brendel's 'Emperor' has always been very special, even in comparison with the rest of the cycle. He recently announced that certain very virtuosic and demanding works would no longer be part of his repertoire. This mature and sensible statement is made all the more telling when listening to this CD. Brendel's technique in the early 1960s was superb and, notwithstanding his greater maturity today, certain rapid passages in the first movement are played with a breathtaking accuracy bordering on perfection. Examples can be found at 5:15 and, in particular, the recapitulation of the opening statement at 12:09.

If you want to buy a CD of Brendel performing either of these concertos then you should really head for his discs with Rattle (Philips).

But this economically priced reissue from Regis is very special in its own way and I for one would not wish to be without it.

Simon Foster

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