Alfred Brendel – Then and Now

Written by: Colin Anderson

Brendel’s discography, such a thoughtfully compiled one, has expanded recently with live Schubert sonatas and studio-recorded Mozart concertos; there’s also a 6-CD retrospective of some of his earliest recordings, which includes repertoire that we wouldn’t associate with him today.

It’s not uncommon to be asked ’who’s your favourite composer?’ Pose that question about pianists and I’m likely to think first of Alfred Brendel. I can’t now precisely recall when I first heard him play, but I think it was his Vox recording of Beethoven’s Second Concerto and Choral Fantasy, coupled together on a Turnabout LP. Getting to know the music would have been my first consideration; no doubt though Brendel’s musicianship would have made contact with me as well. I can recall being in a record shop once, poised to buy an LP of Beethoven’s C major sonata (Op.2/No.3) – I didn’t know the piece at all; my choices were Brendel (Philips) and Gilels (DG). I bought both. The Brendel made a huge impression – it was I think his authority with the music itself that insinuated something tangible. Gilels brought other qualities, wonderful ones, but Brendel played me the text enriched with his own searching of it – that’s my sort of musician.

Brendel looks into the music, analyses not only with a wonderful intellect but with reference points, a tangential inquisitiveness, and a sense of humour (which makes him such a superb Haydn pianist); add his formidable structural awareness and deeply communicative expression for the ingredients that mark Brendel as one of the great musicians.

Young Brendel – VOX BOX CD6X 3601 (6CDs) 
Recent CD releases include “Young Brendel”, an interesting overview of recordings he made for Vox between 1955 and 1966. Some of the included material is already available although Vox claims ’all new remasterings’. The Brendel completist is in a cleft-stick: the ’CD debuts’ will appeal of course, the duplication will not.

Included are Beethoven sonatas – not least a wonderfully buoyant and spontaneous account of ’Les adieux’. I liked too the relaxed, intimate playing of the piano and wind Quintet with members of the Hungarian Quintet. I imagine Brendel would quite like a number of these tapings to be quietly forgotten; he wouldn’t disown them for they have their own validity, and for the Brendel enthusiast they are a vital link in the chain when considering Brendel’s career.

To this end there’s a Mozart B flat concerto from the early ’sixties (conducted by Paul Angerer) that may be compared with his latest (his third I think) with Sir Charles Mackerras recorded in September 2000. Over forty years, the pacing is a tad more measured; that’s neither here or there – there’s a subtle curve of dynamic and a greater feel for the colour of individual notes. Forty years apart the artistry is recognisably similar; it’s the response that is different. His earlier performances might be thought less encumbered with observation although still thoughtful and deeply-felt; the later renditions have the ability to change one’s perceptions of the music in question, the listener invited to reflect on and share with Brendel his meditation.

One would expect that of course. With Brendel one feels that his development is as a result of not being able to stand-still, his unwillingness to play from memory in the sense of repeating himself (although it must be said that some of his constant repertoire has become dulled – I’m thinking of Beethoven concertos). He is curious about what he plays, wants to find more in the music; he shares it with his audience when he has satisfied himself that any new discoveries are worth exchanging.

Mozart: Concertos K482 & 595 – Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras – PHILIPS 468 367-2Of his latest CDs, the one coupling Mozart’s E flat and B flat concertos (K482 and K595) report an interest in going beyond the text in terms of dynamics and ornamentation; and in exploiting keyboard colour. Brendel’s are richly-imagined readings, arpeggios are virile, his cadenzas for K482 are quixotic, more concerned with diverse comment on Mozart’s material than in establishing a virtuoso display. He has a vivid conductor in Mackerras, who brings an operatic aspect to the orchestral part.

Brendel – the devotee of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. It’s easy to forget that he played Prokofiev’s Fifth Concerto and Stravinsky’s Petrushka movements – the former is of interest because it’s Brendel (Jonathan Sternberg and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra do their best, which isn’t quite enough); the latter though is exceptionally fine in its unforced clarity and perceptively burlesque shaping. Schoenberg’s great concerto has stayed with Brendel; three recordings later, his first, conducted, as his most recent one is, by Michael Gielen, is a lucid re-creation not of an impenetrable twelve-note work but a fascinating synthesis of structure, melody and ’new order’ that I always find completely successful.

This Vox Box, is for anyone who ’discovered’ Brendel as their contemporary and who has stayed with him; they will find this release an enjoyable cross-section of his early repertoire with his first recorded thoughts on music that has been a lifetime’s occupation.

Schubert: Sonatas – in B (D575), in G (D894), in A (D959), in B flat (D960) – PHILIPS 456 573-2 (2 CDs)Schubert sonatas among them. Vox include his first ’Wanderer’ Fantasy and the remarkable Three Pieces (D946); his more recent view on four of the sonatas offers compelling presentation. Surprisingly he has not recorded the B major (D575) before. This live account (Amsterdam, October ’98) is a fine debut – the spontaneity of a live occasion and a great interpreter ’on song’ to dig deep into the soul of the music, to emotionalise from within structure and harmony, to take joy in the composer’s daring and to introduce lilt, radiance and hope so naturally (try the last movement of D894, Frankfurt, September ’98) – Brendel is a very complete Schubertian.

He’s also a consummate recording artist, one that you sense is not fazed by the ’red light’ but who relishes the opportunity to ’build’ a recording so that what emerges is just-so in terms of what he wanted to say about the music. These live performances – do we accept them as definitive, or as an adjunct to the studio-made recordings? Of course, Brendel has approved their availability and whatever the perceived pressures of playing for an audience are, there is a vividness and warmth of communication that might not have been so easily captured in a studio.

This Wednesday, May 30, Alfred Brendel begins a five-concert residency at the South Bank Centre. The first is a Royal Festival Hall recital that juxtaposes sonatas of Haydn and Mozart with one of the pinnacles of keyboard literature, Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli. Anticipated in the latter is a through-interpreted traversal, one in which each variation will be characterised with variety of colour and reference; come the final minuet, itself a looking-back, a long expedition of commentary on a simple tune will have been undertaken.

This SBC residency finds Brendel in all his pianistic – and literary – guises. After this solo recital, he joins Matthias Goerne for two song-cycles – Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert’s publisher-compiled Schwanengesang. This isn’t baritone-voice with piano but Goerne and Brendel, the latter no mere accompanist but a collaborator, one who will lead and suggest as much – perhaps more so – than the charismatic singer. Expect a meeting of individual but receptive minds on June 3 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Brendel the chamber-musician follows, this time with young players including cellist-son Adrian. This all-Mozart evening – the two Piano Quartets and A major concerto (K414) in its piano and string quartet version – is on 18 May in the QEH.

The following evening in the Hayward Gallery, Brendel eschews the piano to deliver his own poetry. The outstanding Pierre-Laurent Aimard will complement Brendel’s prose with pieces by Kurtag and Ligeti. This reminds that although Brendel’s repertoire is now focussed on the Viennese classics – Mozart sonatas being a particular pre-occupation at present, with Liszt and Busoni of continued interest – he is often to be found at concerts of contemporary music. Birtwistle and Carter certainly find favour; he couldn’t, apparently, keep away from the former’s Gawain when Covent Garden staged the premiere and revival.

The last event of this series is, by a process of elimination, Brendel concerto-playing. Two actually, both by Mozart. The advertised Schumann has been replaced by Mozart’s C major (K503), which will join the E flat (K271). Christoph von Dohnanyi conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra … and that’s not all – Matthias Goerne returns to give the world premiere of three song-settings, one each from Thomas Ades, Luciano Berio and Harrison Birtwistle of Brendel’s poetry. What a nice idea, courtesy of the Philharmonia, to do this – it will be fascinating to hear how two of the greatest composers approach this task; and how Ades, whose promise to join their rank is unquestionable, will fare in their company.

And to Alfred Brendel – heartfelt thanks for his illumination and dedication. I wouldn’t have missed it and look forward to the journey continuing.

  • Young Brendel – VOX BOX CD6X 3601 (6CDs)
  • Mozart: Concertos K482 & 595 – Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras – PHILIPS 468 367-2
  • Schubert: Sonatas – in B (D575), in G (D894), in A (D959), in B flat (D960) – PHILIPS 456 573-2 (2 CDs)
  • 30 May – RFH recital – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
  • 03 June – QEH – with Matthias Goerne – Beethoven and Schubert
  • 18 June – QEH – with Katharine Gowers, Lucy Jeal, Douglas Paterson and Adrian Brendel – Mozart
  • 19 June – Hayward Gallery – with Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Brendel reads his poetry
  • 30 June – RFH – with Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnanyi – Mozart concertos K271 & 503 plus Ades, Berio and Birtwistle premieres setting Brendel’s poetry for Matthias Goerne
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