Philips' new "Artist's Choice" release devoted to Alfred Brendel recordings selected by the pianist taps into previously unpublished live and broadcast material. According to Brendel's booklet notes, these performances "reproduce my musical intentions more faithfully and immediately than did the perhaps more 'impeccable' studio recordings of these works." In at least a few instances, I agree. Brendel's studio Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses (released in 1991) yields to an equally intense yet more tonally varied and (in the coda) technically supple live 1990 Royal Festival Hall reading. Perhaps the slightly distant engineering helps. It certainly contributes to the grandeur and quasi-orchestral impact the BusoniRead more Elegies (recorded at the same venue in 1997) make at each dynamic extreme. Indeed, I'd cite the Busoni to demonstrate an important attribute of Brendel's artistry that many critics overlook: an ability to gauge and project his sonority to the listener's best advantage in any given venue.
Although Brendel's lone commercial Chopin recital (the Polonaises on Vanguard) reputedly does not make him happy, it's much better than one infamous critical barb ("occupied Poland!") made it out to be. If anything, Brendel's 1968 BBC studio Andante Spianato e Grande polonaise matches the Vanguard version for virility and playfulness, albeit with more flexible rubatos and sharper left-hand detailing. Compared to Brendel's three studio recordings of Beethoven's Op. 101 sonata, a live 1992 traversal from Birmingham reveals a faster, more fluid and serene opening movement and more varied articulation in the fugal finale.
Brendel now considers the May 30, 2001 Royal Festival Hall Diabelli Variations the favorite of his four published traversals of a work particularly close to his heart. Certainly it's the most spontaneous in regard to timing, characterization, and dynamic inflections. To give a few examples, notice how Brendel gauges Variation 13's silences with more humorous aplomb, and in Variation 21 how he achieves greater contrast between the Allegro con brio and Meno allegro sections by not overbuilding the latter.
Then again, his overall conception of the work hasn't significantly altered since his live 1976 recording (most recently available in Philips' Great Pianists of the 20th Century series). He still quickly knocks off the theme with a pronounced rallentando at the end, plays Variation 9 with the emphasis on the downbeats (Beethoven's forte markings on certain upbeats imply a different kind of scansion), and takes Variation 22 (after Mozart's "Notte e giomo faticar" from Don Giovanni) more deliberately than the Allegro molto Beethoven requests.
Technically, Brendel's 70-year-old fingers function pretty much at full capacity, notwithstanding a few small signs of waning energy (Variation 5's dotted rhythms, and flagging momentum between Variations 16 and 17). Although I ultimately gravitate toward the warmer sound and note perfection of Brendel's 1988 Philips studio version (out of print on CD, but available as a digital download), Brendel fans seeking their hero's Diabellis will find much to savor here.
BrilliantJanuary 15, 2013By John T Tyler (Washington, DC)See All My Reviews"I love this CD. It has not left my CD changer since the first time I played it. I do miss Alfred Brendel..."Report Abuse
Not your usual recordingJanuary 15, 2013By DONALD M. (Burdett, NY)See All My Reviews"Alfred Brendel is a consummate artist. If you collect his music, you will definitely want this item from Philips. The selection is classic Brendel, but the performances are otherwise difficult to locate. His interpretation is not to be missed. A really pleasant and inspiring collection."Report Abuse