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Alfred Brendel: Early Recordings Volume 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat, Op 73, ‘Emperor’ [38:16]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Vienna Pro Musica/Zubin Mehta
Franz (Ferenc) LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, No 10: Cantique [6:19]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Concerto No 10 for two pianos and orchestra, K365 [24:30]
Alfred Brendel and Walter Klien (pianos)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Paul Angerer
rec. 1955-1962. ADD.
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
BEULAH 3PS86 [69:06]

Download from AmazonUK (mp3) or Qobuz (lossless, as reviewed).

Recently, one of my students brought to her lesson a copy of Beethoven’s Für Elise in an edition made by Alfred Brendel, originally published in 1968. I was not totally surprised to see his extensive pedal markings, at times somewhat inappropriate in today’s age of authentic music making. So it was a real pleasure to hear Brendel’s recording of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto from 1960, as I had forgotten how modern sounding his early performances as a young man had been. Compare this with more recent fare from Brendel, where beauty and richness of tone (and abundant pedalling) seem to be the norm, especially in his more romantic approach to Schubert.

The arresting opening of Brendel’s account of the Emperor concerto sets the tone for the entire movement. The robust and energetic nature of his performance of the brilliant semiquaver passages in the introduction did come as rather a surprise. This is probably the effect that Beethoven intended and must have come as a bit of a shock to the listeners at the time. The forward thrust of Brendel’s pianism leads to an equally dynamic performance of the first subject from the young Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra. In spite of the superb transfers, these recordings from the late 1950s can sound a little dated and the orchestra does suffer from rather suspicious intonation from time to time. For example, the clarinettist’s dolce response to the strings’ first subject is a little under the note. Occasionally the strings lack warmth and the perfection of ensemble we expect as standard in modern recordings is not always spot on. The balance is very much in favour of the high strings, so that in the closing passage of the orchestral exposition, for example, the interplay between the first violins with cellos and basses results in the bass line being almost inaudible.

However, none of this detracts from the overall impression of truly great music-making here. Brendel’s piano sound is always beautiful even in faster passages. Very classical sounding with no over-romanticising. The first movement is bursting with vitality and rhythmic energy, but the pianist also treats us to passages of great delicacy and beauty. Notice, for example, Brendel’s pianissimo playing of the gently staccato and leggiero second subject. Originally played by the horns near the beginning of the coda’s cadenza-like passage, this soon leads to the final fff peroration of the movement. This is a truly magnificent performance, and it makes Helene Grimaud’s account from 2006 with Vladimir Jurowski, beautiful and romantic though it often is, seem positively tame in comparison.

The key change for the Adagio always sounds so beautiful and unexpected, and even though I have heard it so many times, this is always a moment I wait for with bated breath. The Pro Arte Orchestra, Zubin Mehta and the sound engineers capture this moment superbly. We are treated to a better string tone here and Brendel and Mehta keeping the whole thing moving forward. Jurowski and Grimaud seem rather sluggish in comparison (DG 4776595, or 4777190 with Sonata No 28, both download only – review of original release: Recording of the Month).

Following a suspenseful transition, Brendel’s entry into the ensuing ‘Rondo’ seems positively explosive, but his initial statement of the main, syncopated theme is in measured tempo allowing for great clarity of texture. Mehta is suitably vigorous in the orchestral response though, again, I feel that the string department tone is rather thin, sparse and top-heavy. Then Brendel’s crystal clear semiquaver triplets which follow, leading to the beautifully phrased second main theme, remind us both of Brendel’s prodigious technique and his barely rivalled musicality.

This is a truly great performance from Alfred Brendel, and Mehta is a sympathetic partner. Beulah have done wonders with the transfer, especially with the piano part. As well as the grandeur and magnificence of the pianist’s playing, we can appreciate every subtle detail of nuance and expressiveness at all dynamic levels. The sound quality and performance from the orchestra, whilst satisfactory and full of rhythmic vitality, is not always at the highest level.

It was good to hear Walter Klien again after so many years, as I well remember the stir caused when his Mozart recordings of the sonatas were issued in the 1960s. I think that this set was very influential in contributing to the emerging movement leading to a more authentic way of playing classical period music. Brendel and Klien seem to play as one in the Mozart Concerto No 10 for 2 pianos and orchestra. This performance shows how so-called ‘authentic’ performance, with its regularity of tempo, never too slow, can be imbued with so much expressiveness and feeling without sounding over romantic or nostalgic. All those interested in classical style performance should definitely listen to this.

For me, the Liszt Cantique d’amour has to be the highlight of the disc. Brendel imbues the poetry of the melodic line with a sense of sublime serenity. The melody is always pre-eminent, whatever may be the elaboration or decoration of the accompanying figures. Brendel pays great attention to every detail. For example, when the main melody is presented by Liszt in right hand octaves, the composer asks for the lower notes to be rather more weighted than the upper octave notes (from bar 22). Brendel negotiates this passage with breath-taking effect. In spite of such attention to detail, he creates a sense of freedom and improvisation combined with a deep understanding of the work’s structure. This performance reminds us what a great pianist Alfred Brendel was, even as a young man. The recording engineers have done marvels here and the results can only be praised. I can’t imagine a better performance of this piece.

These recordings come highly recommended.

Geoffrey Molyneux

 

 



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