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Alfred Brendel (piano)
Early Recordings – Volume 1

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fantasia in G minor Op 77 (1809) [9:18]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E-flat major S.124 (1849) [19:05]
Piano Concerto No 2 in A major S.125 (1861) [21:39]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1781)
Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds K.452 (1784) [23:21]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra/Michael Gielen (Liszt); Members of the Hungarian Wind Quintet (Mozart)
rec. 1957-1962
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
BEULAH 1PS86 [73:23]

For me, as I am sure it will be for many readers, listening to these sparkling new transfers from Beulah was a trip down memory lane. The cassettes available for free loan from the library in my particular part of Northern Ireland in the early 80s didn’t seem to go beyond 1970 in terms of recording dates but, assuming they still worked, what I got was some wonderful music making on labels like Vox and Turnabout. The star turn was always Alfred Brendel and/or the wind playing of an organisation mysteriously named the Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra. At the same time in the same library, I got my hands on an early edition of the Penguin Guide. Whilst Brendel certainly featured in its pages, it was never in these recordings. The poor old Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra seemed entirely missing. My ears kept telling me that this was great performing and many years later, when these recordings began appearing on CD, I got the chance to confirm the critical opinion of my younger self.

There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the woodwind of the Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra – or the Vienna Symphony as we now know them to be – in the Liszt concerto recordings on this first volume of a series dedicated to the early recordings of Alfred Brendel. Try the solo clarinet a few minutes into the first concerto. No later recording even gets close to the lyricism of this interaction of soloist and clarinetist. Not even Richter with Kondrashin on their celebrated recording, and certainly not the older Brendel in 1972 with Haitink – the Penguin Guide rosette it was awarded notwithstanding (those were the days!)

There is a risk, in listening to these recordings, of viewing them exclusively as products of the artist in embryo. Instead of treating them as interpretations in their own right, they are seen as somehow student works. My experience, reviewing the Liszt concertos, has been that they are anything but. They stand comparison with the very best recordings, including the Richter already mentioned and Brendel’s own later account.

The conductor always has a surprising amount to do with the success or failure of performances of the Liszt concertos. Gielen (only in his 30s at the time himself) is a very positive presence here from the first bar of the first concerto. It is easy to hear that Brendel and Haitink in 1972 are going for weight, though what I hear is sluggishness next to Gielen and Kondrashin for Richter.

Both of the concerto recordings here sound like the music making of a young man – freer and more impetuous than Brendel’s later self – so I decided to compare them with more modern recordings by younger pianists of today. I started with Yundi with Andrew Davies from 2006 on DG and rather wish I hadn’t. The opening of the First Concerto sounds rather like someone energetically attempting to break down a wall and things don’t improve with the arrival of more lyrical material a few minutes later. Lang Lang, also on DG from 2011 and again in the First Concerto, has the advantage of the Vienna Philharmonic in fine form under Gergiev. I much preferred his touch in the quieter moments to Yundi’s but found his pulling around of the tempo much too self indulgent. The young Brendel, by contrast, is superbly lyrical throughout without any need to exaggerate the changes in tempo. I cannot think of any performances of these works, so often seen as virtuoso display pieces, that bring out the beauty of the writing more.

It may have been fanciful of me but I couldn’t help recalling, at various points in listening to the Liszt, that Gielen and Brendel also recorded the Schoenberg piano concerto at this time. Whilst Brendel is much more romantic in approach here than he was to become later in 1972, these performances also show us Liszt the modernist. Sometimes it is an emphasis on a harmony here or the darkening of an orchestral texture there, but this is a vision of Liszt in keeping with Brendel’s 1980 recording of the late Liszt piano music for Philips. Listen, for example, to the restraint both conductor and pianist exercise in the final section of the second concerto, trusting the music to generate excitement rather than stampeding ahead for a grandstand finish. In the same section the sheer beauty and delicacy they draw out of Liszt’s orchestration is simply wonderful. The effect is strikingly close to Bartók.

Beulah’s engineers deserve considerable credit: the sound is bright and clear but still warm and resonant. Comparing this issue in the form of a digital download with the CDs of the 1996 Vox Box, the older release sounds very dim and murky. Remarkably, the sound achieved on this release does not need to yield too much compared to the extremely good sound produced by the Philips engineers for Brendel in 1972.

What really sets these Liszt interpretations apart from the later Brendel is a freedom and fantasy for which no amount of wisdom and experience can compensate. With Brendel’s Beethoven, perhaps, or Schubert, the benefits of experience are evident but in these concertos I will take the first thoughts of the young tyro over the older man any time.

Beulah have chosen to place Brendel’s version of the Mozart quintet for piano and wind K452 between the two Liszt concertos. I fail to see the logic of this and chose to listen to the Liszt consecutively before turning to this fine account of the Mozart. This time, Brendel’s colleagues have not adopted a pseudonym and appear as themselves – members of the Hungarian Wind Quintet – and a fine, well blended ensemble they sound.

As other recordings from this era can testify, Brendel was already, by this point, a formidable Mozartian. The first thing that becomes apparent when listening to this recording is how beautifully balanced it is. Each instrument has its own space without the piano overly dominating in the manner of a concerto. Surprisingly for such youthful musicians, the main part of first movement is more moderato than allegro. This is an enjoyable, relaxed outing for this lovely work. It may lack the oomph of Perahia’s recording with members of the English Chamber Orchestra from 1986 or the irresistible character of the famous performance led by Dennis Brain, but it can be warmly recommended.

Kicking proceedings off we get a bright, alert take on the less well known Fantasia in G minor by Beethoven. Written in 1809 at the height of his heroic period, this piece may perhaps give us a little glimpse of Beethoven the legendary improviser. The sound here is a little brittle and, at moments, Brendel sounds like he is still getting his head and his fingers round the piece. I got a lot more pleasure from Jonathan Biss’ 2004 performance on EMI. The younger man seemed to have a firmer grip on the work’s rhetorical gestures.

To draw things together, what we get are decent Beethoven, very good Mozart and exceptional Liszt. Even those who already have these accounts on CD are urged to at least sample what Beulah have achieved with the sound.

David McDade

 

 



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