Alfred Brendel Live in Vienna
Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Handel; Schumann: Piano Concerto
Alfred Brendel (piano); Vienna Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
Decca 438 3288 52:19 mins
Both works on this disc were recorded live in Vienna, the concerto in 2001 and the Brahms variations as long ago as 1979. Therefore, expect to hear two very different performances from Brendel. The booklet includes an essay by the great pianist, not least explaining why he is happy with the recording of the Schumann, and one might be glad to hear this, because he does not always sound happy during the performance itself.
Given the calibre of this team, the Concerto is more of a mixed bag than one might hope. Brendel’s tone quality is beautiful and no note goes by without a sense of meaning. However, the performance seems to veer occasionally towards losing shape and a sense of direction; a certain doggedness to the busy finale is a case in point, and although Rattle tries where possible to instil some glamour through the lustrous tone of the Vienna Philharmonic, the impression can still be a little unforgiving. There is much to enjoy, but one could feel that this rendition is less than the sum of its parts.
The 1979 performance of the Brahms Handel Variations is another matter. This is playing of tremendous incisiveness, highly energetic in both physical and intellectual terms. Brendel traces a powerful thread of development and logic through the set’s successive variations; voicing is superb and there’s a splendid variety of touch and texture, while the whole interpretation is shot through with the adrenaline of live performance. The final fugue is a suitable moment of triumph.