Thirty-Something Brendel in Vienna
T. Beers | Arlington, Virginia United States | 10/24/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 35 CD box set collects all the solo recordings made by the great pianist Alfred Brendel for the US Vox and Vanguard companies between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s. (The set also includes a few duo piano recordings of Mozart by Brendel and his friend Walter Klien.) Brendel disavows these recordings today, when he mentions them at all, but I think they are priceless documents of a strikingly gifted and assertive young artist on the brink of a fabulous maturity. Some of the earliest recordings are mono, but the vast bulk are stereo recordings made by Vox between 1959 and 1966. Highlights include Brendel's first complete traversal of Beethoven's solo piano music (the 32 Sonatas, Variations, Bagatelles, etc.), as well as the five piano concertos; a handful of Mozart's greatest concertos; Liszt's concertos, opera paraphrases, and excerpts from the 'Annees de Pelerinage'; rare recordings of Chopin polonaises and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies (for Vanguard); and a marvelously spiky, thrilling recording of Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. The orchestras are mostly under-rehearsed, ad hoc Viennese groups assembled to make recordings, although sometimes you get the glossier Vienna Symphony or, on one glorious occasion, the superb chamber orchestra I Solisti di Zagreb. The roster of participating conductors includes class acts like Michael Gielen and (for Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto) Zubin Mehta, but more often you get respectable but lesser podium luminaries of the 1960s Vienna scene like Wilfried Boettcher, Paul Angerer, and Heinz Wallberg. I note these 'shortcomings' only. They detract from Brendel's achievements only incidentally and insignificantly. What I find most winning about almost all the performances in this giant set is the palpable sense of exploration, risk-taking, and discovery achieved throughout, coupled with a demonstration of superb technique and unflinching, flinty intelligence. Brendel was a pupil of Eduard Steuermann and Edwin Fischer, two of the most formidably gifted pianists of the first half of the 20th Century, and that heritage shows even in discs recorded in the earliest years of his career. And make no mistake: while Brendel's later recordings for Philips reveal even more subtle and insightful encounters with his core repertory (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt), these 35 CDs offer provocative, superbly projected performances that amaze, delight, and instruct. Also, the set offers some surprising repertory that Brendel never chose to revisit in later years, like Stravinsky's "Three Movements from 'Petrouchka'" and Prokofiev's steely Fifth Piano Concerto. Brilliant Classics has done a fine job remastering these vintage recordings from 40 and 50 years ago. While almost all are individually available from the companies that currently hold the legal rights to the Vox and Vanguard catalogues, they by and large just sound better as presented in this set. For example, Brendel recorded the late Beethoven sonatas (nos. 27-32) at the beginning of his Vox cycle (ca. 1964), and they have always sounded terribly glassy and shallow. Somehow, Brilliant Classics has managed to tame the glassiness. The result? For the first time in 40 years I've been able to listen to Brendel's Vox 'Hammerklavier Sonata' with real pleasure. Bravo! The set contains superb essays by noted writer Ates Orca that provide a wealth of information and insight about Brendel and his early recordings. Finally, the price: you simply cannot obtain these recordings for a price that is lower than that charged for this set. So with all due respect (and apologies) to Alfred Brendel: disregard his impatient dismissal of these early recordings. They constitute a distinctive, fascinating, and honorable chapter in the record of his most distinguished career. Buy them and enjoy!"
Young Brendel - Some of his best stuff on record
R. Lane | Tracy, CA USA | 11/10/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Of the many recording artists featured in the vast treasures of the Vox Turnabout line, none went on to have any where near the vibrant international career as a major first-run performance and major-label recording artist that Alfred Brendel enjoyed (he recently officially "retired"). Much of the material here Brendel later recorded again for one of the major labels, sometimes multiple times. He made 2 more complete traversals of the 32 Beethoven sonatas for Philips, and 3 sets of the Beethoven Piano Concertos. Like many movie remakes and sequels though, the first is often the best, as this box gives evidence of.
I bought the box 100% for the Beethoven recordings. Brendel's first traversal of the 32 sonatas is full of youthful vigor, energy, and yet still has the thoughtful and light introspective nature that is a hallmark of his fame. Missing (thankfully) are traces of over-indulgence and sentimentality that often marred his remakes. And the concertos likewise have a Spring-like quality about them. I had to live with inferior Vox and Murray Hill records for these recordings for many years. I was absolutely overjoyed to finally have them in first class CD transfers, and at an incredible price. Thanks you once again Brilliant Classics for making some of the best archival recordings available at less-than-reasonable prices.
Among the other works in the box, I particularly enjoyed the Schumann C major Fantasia, the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and Impromptus, and some of the Mozart concertos. About the only disappointment so far has been the Pictures at an Exhibition.
Buy the box for the Beethoven, and enjoy the bonus material.
A Brendel Treasure Chest
Johannes Climacus | Beverly, Massachusetts | 01/30/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Pianist Alfred Brendel has had a long and distinguished career both in the concert hall and in the recording studio. Older listeners will have become acquainted with his distinctive artistic persona--a combination of intellectual rigor, stylistic acumen, and unfeigned inwardness--through the early Vox and Vanguard recordings anthologized in this huge collection. Younger listeners may not be aware that he made so many fine recordings before his international reputation became fully established. To my ears, these early efforts represent Brendel at his freshest and most engaging. If you know only his Phillips recordings of the last three decades, which are often compromised by a certain didacticism, then you will be surprised by the sparkle and spontaneity of his playing during the early-LP era.
Over the years I have owned and enjoyed, in one incarnation or another, most of the recordings contained in this bargain box. All, I believe, have been reissued previously by the various concerns that have owned the rights to Vox and Vanguard catalogues. Prospective purchasers who are not familiar with these venerable labels need to know that they tended to operate on a shoestring budget--which means that both sonics and orchestral playing (often by ad hoc ensembles) are of variable quality.
That caveat aside, I urge pianophiles and admirers of Brendel to consider adding this amazingly inexpensive anthology to their collections, for there are many treasures here including the pianist's first (and most stimulating) Beethoven sonata cycle, a superb tour through that composer's variations and shorter pieces (including an outstanding "Diabelli"); some beautifully sculpted Schubert; invigorating Haydn and Mozart; scorchingly virtuosic and intellectually challenging Liszt. Brendel is less impressive in composers with whom he had scant affinity (and tended to avoid once he achieved stardom)--such as Chopin, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Prokofiev. Evidently neither early romantic nor slavic passions resonated with Brendel. Make no mistake, however--the overwhelming majority of these early solo recordings convey insight and conviction in equal measure. In Beethoven and Schubert few pianists since Schnabel have probed more deeply, without a trace of affectation or posturing.
What are you waiting for? Brilliant has given you a gilt-edged invitation to explore a historic cache of recordings revealing a great artist in the process of spreading his wings."