COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Dvorak,Haydn,Liszt,Mozart,Prokofiev & Stravinsky,Schoenberg,Schubert
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Alfred Brendel Ð The Vox Years
PERFORMER: Alfred Brendel, Walter Klien (piano); various orchestras/Paul Angerer, Wilfried Boettcher, Michael Gielen, Jonathan Sternberg
CATALOGUE NO: CD6X 3601 ADD mono/stereo Reissue (1955-66)
Here is an exceptional 70th birthday tribute to Alfred Brendel: a ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’, pre-Philips contract, with some performances – Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto and the Stravinsky Petrushka Suite – dating back as far as 1955. Most of the recordings are closely miked, which gives them an aura of intimacy; and most have transferred very well. The first three discs, from 1961-4, present Brendel in his heartland of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He was as Brendelesque then as now, performing with care, inwardness, tension and a very personal wit – his assurance and feeling in the Beethoven Op. 119 Bagatelles are stunning and the Haydn D major Concerto is a delight.
Disc 4 begins with Schubert – the Wanderer Fantasy in a wonderfully shaped rendition, its slow section exploring emotional and philosophical depths worthy of Winterreise. But the Dvorák Slavonic Dances, in duet with Walter Klien, don’t really work. The duo doesn’t sound comfortable on the dance floor; there’s little by way of lilt, bounce and swing, and fast numbers sound anxious rather than exhilarating. There are several staggering performances on the fifth disc, devoted to Liszt, from a youthful Brendel who could combine intellect and philosophy with power and virtuoso technique the equal of any – when he wanted to. And in the Weber Oberon transcription, he evidently did want to, revelling gloriously in the work’s grand gestures and high Romanticism. Funérailles, too, is unforgettable: Brendel plays the opening as a vast, precipitous build-up, devastating in its emotional impact.
The earliest performances are on the last CD. The Prokofiev Fifth Concerto – Brendel’s very first recording – is a filigree fairy tale devoid of bombast, though it has survived its transfer less well than other pieces; and he makes the Schoenberg Concerto sound lyrical. But he seems less happy in the Petrushka Suite, which really does need extrovert, narrative, impressionistic and unashamedly virtuoso playing – and notably not the kind of piece Brendel performs much these days. Then again, there’s no reason why even this pianist should be equally outstanding in every area of repertoire. All in all, the set is a must for Brendel fans and collectors alike.