January 5th 2011 was the 80th birthday of one of the greatest, if now retired, living pianists. Decca, which has now completely absorbed the Philips label that Alfred Brendel has been with since the 1970s, have dipped into the archives and released this set to cash in on, I mean commemorate, the occasion. Spotify users can hear the set here.
Unlike his Artists Choice series, which contains some fabulous releases which are frequently superior to their studio counterparts, it is not clear if Brendel has actually picked these himself - certainly it is not explicitly stated on Decca's website or on the CD case. In addition, Brendel's own words do not generally mark them as favourites in the same way. Sadly, for the most part the set is something of a damp squib and hard to recommend.
It opens with a performance of Brahms' first concerto with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. As Brendel himself notes:
The recording of Brahms's D minor Concerto with Claudio Abbado suffered from a balance problem: the piano sounded too remote.
And he has a fair point. Certainly, this live performance solves that problem, and the piano part is at times inspired and remarkably fresh and as prominent as you could wish for. Unfortunately, a great and prominent piano part does not a great concerto make, especially this one, with its at times domineering orchestral accompaniment. Much of the time, particularly in the purely orchestral sections, it is just rather dull. Add to which, the playing is often rather scrappier than I've come to expect from the fine concert performances I've witnessed from the orchestra. Given the great recordings available, it's tough to recommend it. Indeed, that earlier Brendel reading is one such. Yes, balance is not ideal, but it is good enough, and right from the off the drama missing from this set is present. Abbado and the Berlin Phil provide fine accompaniment (and to me are far more convincing that in their survey of the symphonies). Unfortunately it is now deleted, though Spotify users can hear it here.
Disc two kicks off with Mozart's K503 concerto and the problems are much the same. Brendel makes the following case:
Similarly, the sound and spirit of the Südwestfunk recording of Mozart's concerto K.503 convey an immediacy which studio productions do not always achieve.
And while this may be, the sound quality is pretty poor, being rather muffled. Once again Brendel often sparkles, yet the orchestra doesn't. Indeed, the accompaniment is pretty second rate. And given Brendel has several existing recordings of this work, not least his most recent with that incomparable Mozart team of Mackerras and the SCO in support, it really is difficult to see what this performance is doing on the disc.
Fortunately, the last two works redeem the set somewhat. First comes Beethoven's op.110 sonata. Brendel again:
Of all my attempts to do justice to this unique and precarious piece, this one is nearest to my heart.
It isn't my favourite sonata, so it's doubly impressive what a compelling case Brendel makes for it here. Both spellbinding and stunningly beautiful, it displays exactly the sort of magic that is missing from the rest of the set. The Schubert D935/1 that rounds off the disc is also very fine.
Still, half an hour of great music doesn't justify a double CD; and for a wonderful artist with such a rich legacy, this is a poor celebration and cannot be recommended. Where, then, should you look instead?
Let's start with Mozart. Of the many fine concerto recordings available my personal favourite is his disc of K414 and K453 with Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There are several reasons for this, not least that here are two concertos not quite so overplayed as some of the others. It helps too that I saw the 2004 Edinburgh Festival performances that followed the recording sessions - a special experience indeed (not least the amusement of hearing Brendel warming up off-stage during the Prague symphony). Brendel's fine playing is matched with sparkling accompaniment from Mackerras and the SCO, as one finds in each of the four discs they did together. Right from the off there is a zing to the string sound and both performances are alive in exactly the way the K503 on the birthday set isn't.
Then to Schubert. Brendel, has a rich legacy of Schubert on disc, but for my choice I'm going to look to the D960, my favourite sonata. The Brendel fan has at least four available performances to choose from including his 1971 and 1988 Philips studio performances and that recorded on his farewell tour (which I was lucky enough to witness twice). However, in my view, pride of place goes to this 1997 live account, notable since when I heard it, it displace Kempff as my long held favourite. Yes, there is a little audience noise (and one particularly irritating bang), but Brendel's poetry and his compelling take on the piece more than make up for it. Achingly beautiful at times, yet without ever wallowing overly or sacrificing momentum. At other points there is thrilling drama, and throughout Brendel's interpretation is wonderfully lucid. This is the sort of performance that leaves you feeling as though you never need to hear any other piece. And as a bonus you get fine accounts of D784, 840, 894 and 959 too, but it is for the B flat major that I treasure the set.
For Beethoven there are again a multitude of fine recordings out there, not least his final survey of the concerti with Rattle and the Vienna Phil or some of his three cycles of the sonatas. However, for me this 2001 live recording of the Diabelli Variations holds a special place. I previously only knew them from his 1988 studio recording and wasn't swept away by it, not rating the work terribly highly as a result. This fantastically compelling performance changed my mind. Always important to me in a set of variations is that one feels a natural flow from one to another, rather than them seeming disparate; certainly Brendel achieves that here. Yet at the same time there is no shortage of variety and colour. It is also the sort of performance that just flies by, belying its length of nearly an hour, and this despite being nearly three minutes slower than the studio version. On top of all that, it represents a pretty fearsome display of virtuosity. You get a number of other performances including some Chopin and Beethoven's op.101, but it's the Diabellis that make it.
Of course, the release that started this post off isn't Decca's only offering: they've also served up several boxes of reissues. There is a seven disc set of late Schubert, of which I've heard almost none, then there is a twelve disc box containing the second of his three surveys of the Beethoven sonatas (I cannot comment since it's the only one I've yet to hear) and the concerti with Haitink and the LPO. If that wasn't enough, March will bring us his Mozart concerti with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
However, perhaps the most interesting is a three disc set issued on the same date as the 'birthday' set. This does carry the Artist's Choice moniker and is altogether more persuasive. (Those with Spotify can listen here.)
For a start it has that Mackerras/SCO Mozart K453 concerto which, so Brendel tells us:
was a particular favourite of the late Sir Charles Mackerras whose freshness and Mozartian insight I much admired.
It opens, however, with some Bach: the Italian concerto BWV 971 and the fantasia and fugue BWV 904. On many occasions when I heard him play a recital, we got a piece of Bach as an encore, so it's nice to have those concert hall memories evoked with some sublimely played and slightly more substantial Bach. Closing off the first disc is a performance of Schubert's Wanderer fantasy as fine, poetic and filled with drama as the best of Brendel's Schubert.
The second disc, an all Beethoven affair, opens with an account of the Hammerklavier sonata which, despite having some very fine playing, is a little on the light side, an approach I'm not always convinced by. While Brendel does find a fair degree of drama, he also often has me wishing for a little more oomph. Joining it are the six op.34 variations. And, nice though they are, all I can do is wish that it was that stunning op.101 from the birthday set instead.
The final disc is perhaps the most interesting, made up of what at first glance might seem an eclectic selection of composers and not those with whom Brendel enjoys his most prominent associations. Yet the works are all tied together by being programatic in nature. I don't really know any of them well enough to offer much by way of review, but it is an enjoyable selection. First up is Weber's Konzertstuck op.79 with Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra. Brendel's sparkling playing is nicely offset by lush and well judged accompaniment. There is no shortage of drama or fireworks, not to mention the wonderful joyful start to the second movement or the excitement that follows.
Liszt follows, not a composer I'm especially fond of, mainly as in my experience its often associated with a thumping school of pianism that I don't much care for. However, Brendel's treatment of the S175 Legendes of St Francis are fairly nice, even though they do occasionally suffer from this tendency. It may be comparing apples to oranges, but the first doesn't feel nearly so evocative of birds as Messiaen's piano writing. But, as I say, query how useful my comments are on music that isn't to my taste - while there are often interesting things going on, this is simply music I don't love. A Busoni toccatta follows, which also has the least good and most noticeably live sound on the set (though still perfectly acceptable). Well played though it might be, it does little for me either.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the reading of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition that brings the set to a close. I know the piece best from Ravel's wonderfully coloured orchestration and I think one mark of a good piano version is that it doesn't leave you feeling that there's a huge amount of stuff (namely a vast orchestra) missing. Here Brendel succeeds, rich and powerful where needed, but at other times finding quieter and more introspective beauty. Another key in this work is that it should be vivid and evocative - this is music describing pictures, after all. Here again, Brendel succeeds: Bydlo, for example, is fearsomely dramatic; then there is the frantic depiction of The Market at Limoges or the eeriness of The Catacombs. The Great Gate of Kiev is as grand and colourful as you could wish for. Suffice to say that after only a few listens, this performance as become a firm favourite.
In short, it is a thoroughly recommendable set and a fine tribute to the breadth and depth of this remarkable artist and a birthday tribute far superior to the disc that started this post.
Of course, if you're looking for an cracking bargain, you could always try Brilliant's mammoth 35 disc box of his early recordings. It must be said, though, that quantity does not mean quality and while there are fine performances within, the favourites I've listed above are finer.
I wanted to finish by offering a Spotify playlist of my favourites so you could get a proper flavour. Frustratingly, not all of them are available via the music streaming service, but this is a reasonable approximation.