WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Alfred Brendel (piano)Chicago SO/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 455 045-2
This is as important a set of discs as even non-admirers of Brendel could wish for. It is worth spending time reading his essay about his reference to the new edition of the concertos: Nos 1-3 benefit from scholarship available in 1983, when these live recordings were made at two concerts in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.
As Brendel himself points out, such a set of discs is not for the worshipper of the cult of flawlessness. Fallibility is part of the tightrope walk of a live performance, with relief that nothing has gone amiss being an ingredient of an audience’s applause. Not that anything went seriously wrong on those two June nights. In his essay, Brendel draws attention to the error in No. 3, where Beethoven’s time signature actually indicates four-in-a-bar rather than two. Despite an initial tempo set by Levine veering towards a traditional, erroneous interpretation, Brendel’s first entry puts matters right and he proceeds with an account which highlights the historical context of this pivotal work, midway in the canon: a concerto which breaks the Classical mould to take a new path towards Romanticism. Its first-movement cadenza followed by the magical orchestral reappearance says it all.
There’s a wonderful freshness and delicacy in the playing of No. 1, with a particularly skittish finale full of fine orchestral detail. No purists, Levine and Brendel in partnership create small, unexpected nuances in tempo to highlight each new section of this rondo. This is also true of the finale of the less familiar No. 2, equally memorable for the sublime vocal quality of Brendel’s touch in the Adagio, and some barely audible playing by the CSO’s string section, a real pianissimo here.
Just occasionally, in the first movement of No. 4, ensemble wavers, but for live performances the incidence of this is remarkably rare, a sure sign of a solid musical partnership. The less familiar cadenza by Beethoven makes a welcome change in No. 4, while the majestic No. 5 gets its due imperial treatment – a Grand Concerto as Beethoven would have it. There’s plenty of presence in the sound at Orchestra Hall, and the audience is never less than hugely enthusiastic at the end, yet held spellbound during the music. Christopher Fifield