Performer: Members of Hungarian Quintet
Conductor: Antonio Janigro, Heinz Wallberg, Jonathan Sternberg, Michael Gielen, Paul Angerer, et al.
Composer: Mily Balakirev, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Liszt, et al.
SPARS Code: ADD
Number of Discs: 35 CD box set
Format: APE (image+cue)
Label: Brilliant Classics
Size: 8.96 GB
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! — T. Beers
Young Brendel – Some of his best stuff on record
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.