Monday, October 4, 2010

Brendel In Retirement

The Gramophone Awards ceremony took place October 1, 2010, in London. Recipient of a richly deserved lifetime achievement award was the great pianist Alfred Brendel, an Austrian born January 5, 1931, in the former Czechoslovakia, who has lived for many years in London. Recently retired in 2008, Brendel explored the great Austro-German piano repertoire to the delight of audiences around the world for almost a half century. Some listeners have characterized his playing as being analytical or cerebral. He has said that he believes the primary job of the pianist is to respect the composer's wishes without showing off himself, or adding his own particular stamp on the music. "I am responsible to the composer, and particularly to the piece," he has said. He cites Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences.

Fortunately we have a memento of his art at the conclusion of his career with a superb recording of concert performances in Halle and Vienna, the latter in Vienna's magnificent Musikverein, with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who died July 14, 2010. The recording features music of Mozart and Schubert, two of the composers at the core of his repertoire. Brendel fortunately left a vast recorded legacy.

Brendel performed many times at the Salzburg Festival, where this writer had the privilege of hearing him. If there is one indispensable Brendel recording, it would be his own selection of live performances from Salzburg in 1960-61, released on the Festival's own label. The program includes Haydn, Andante with variations for piano in F minor, H. 17/6, and Keyboard Sonata in C major, H. 16/50; Schubert, Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor ("Grande Sonate"), D. 784 (Op. posth. 143); and Piano Sonata No. 15 in C major ("Relique"), D. 840; and Liszt, Isoldens Liebestod: Schlußszene aus Tristan und Isolde, transcription for piano (after Wagner), S. 447 (LW A239).

Brendel is at the peak of his powers. The Liszt transcription comes as close to the performance of a great singer as a pianist can manage. The sound quality is warm and resonant. Brendel's Schubert is matched by few and excelled by none. He has recorded the sonatas and other piano works a number of times, but the live performances recorded in the 1980s of D575, 894, 959 & 960, released on Philips are among the best. For those listeners who are just discovering Brendel, you will hear one of the great pianists of his era.

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