Alfred Brendel, who was born in 1931 at Wiesenberg in northern Moravia (now the Czech Republic), retired from concert-giving in 2008. This reissue of his complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle on Decca was originally recorded for Philips (446909-2) between 1992 and 1996. You're unlikely to get very far into it without being struck by four things: firstly, and most importantly, these are very persuasive, beautiful and dependable interpretations. Secondly, although presented in broadly chronological order, there are some exceptions – on the second, fifth and seventh to ninth CDs. Thirdly, a minority of these performances are live. Lastly, they are all very Brendelian in flavor… the legato, the tempi, his delicacy yet sureness of touch, the way he handles structure – and the pianist's gentle but audible groans. There are a good half dozen top notch sets of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (see below). This one of Brendel is to be considered in that number whether or not you are a Brendel aficionado. If you are, and haven't got this set, you should not hesitate. Even if you have others, there is more than enough in this reissue for it to be placed in the select few of such sets worth owning regardless of whether you tend to go for everything the artist does or not. It's also available at very affordable discounted prices.
Brendel's approach is a romantic but not a sentimental one. Nor effete. Rather, warm and approachable. Hence his use of legato, of which Beethoven would surely have approved. At the same time, these (presumably) last recorded thoughts of Brendel on the corpus have acquired a transparency without any noticeable attendant detachment. This confers a dignity on the music without ever suggesting resignation (again, something that Beethoven would never have given in to; and not the same thing as acceptance). Above all, Brendel seems to be working from the belief that to interpose one's own personality between the notes and listeners (as pianists such as Backhaus did when the first cycles appeared on record half a century ago) is unjust and unwise. Brendel chooses not a "minimalist" stance, but one almost unconsciously stripped of any varnish. This is nevertheless a way of playing that demonstrates a quiet distillation of the sonatas' essences. In achieving such a directness, Brendel does great service to these works. Ever the most modest of pianists, it's as if he is nevertheless saying, "I've been living with these works for 50 years (his first Vox/Turnabout cycle dates from 1961-64). And I have earned the right to offer them to those willing to listen – in my own way; but neither exclusively nor aggressively on my own terms only. Nor shall I let my own style stand in for the originality and profundity of the music." Brendel is confident that such a style is broad and accomplished enough both to appeal to and also to satisfy the majority of listeners.
Other than arranging the best fit of sonata-lengths on disks, it's hard to imagine why they follow the order they do. Though it's no great disadvantage unless you do want automatically to experience the composer's development and not jump, say, from #4 to 15 to 20 before returning to #5 over CDs 2 and 3. Then there are those introduced and followed by applause – Nos 5 and 6 on CD 3. And the fact that five different recording venues were used: The Maltings, Snape (in November 1992 for Nos. 16, 17, 18, 19, 28; in February 1994 for Nos. 1, 2, 3, 19, 23; in October 1994 for Nos. 24, 25; and in December 1995 for Nos. 31, 32). Then Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany (in April 1993 for Nos. 12, 13, 14, 21, 22, Andante favori; in June 1994 for Nos.4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 20, 26; and in March 1995 for Nos. 7, 27). Next Frankfurt (in February 1995 for Nos. 5, 6). And The Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna (in February 1995 for #29, also live). Lastly the Henry Wood Hall, London (in February 1996 for No.30). This might seem to militate against a unified vision of the works. Yet there is little or no sense of any discontinuity, disjointedness or inconsistency. Despite his determination not to view Beethoven's great creations through a glass of his own, the sonatas are nonetheless situated in a flexible yet quite stable and robust frame – if for no other reason than that they are all played by the same musician, Brendel, who has come to them with one set of (musical) experiences. And – significantly – has the musical world of which they were part, and into which they infused such life, in his blood.
As is almost always the case with collections of whole cycles by one interpreter, it's unlikely that every work will represent the best either of that interpreter or the best available of that particular work. You may have a favorite Moonlight (by Schiff on ECM New Series 1944), say; or Hammerklavier (by Kempff on DGG 447966-2). Yet for the reasons just rehearsed this Brendel set does have a pleasing and at the same time encouragingly liberating consistency of vision that means it stands as good a chance as many (and a better chance than most) of hitting more marks than it misses.
You'll be struck by the at times slightly unpolished-sounding "finish" to some of the sonatas. Not for a minute does this betoken a lack of technique. Nor quite a sense of wishing to inject spontaneity: every note of all Brendel's interpretations is clearly extremely carefully considered. Just a sense that the musical phrasing, the tempi (which Brendel varies to underline a specific mood or contrast) and the relationship of part to whole must all be presented in the service of the very essence of the music – rather than as ends in themselves. From the open mind that's so much a part of this pianist's character one happily concludes that this apparent waywardness is in fact the consequence of new or recurring ideas about the music and its meaning. These seem to suggest themselves to Brendel as he's playing; and he refuses to suppress them. The difference between this and mere "spontaneity" is that the latter potentially knows no bounds. Brendel is always in control in these considered and highly communicative interpretations. In that sense it's a rather "Viennese" style of playing. Not quite self-effacing; but sufficiently assured as to allow a welcome latitude.
On the other hand, there are moments (the allegretto of Op. 31 #2 ("The Tempest") [cd.6 tr.6], for example) when drive and confidence almost border on the mechanical. The repeated ostinato notes have no marking other than crescendo and diminuendo. Yet Brendel's insistence seems self-generating, rather than aiming for an expressive goal. You either feel he is in a hurry, or over-familiar with the movement; or that he is allowing it to raise a beckoning finger and is responding with an alacrity that almost defies the emotion implied by such a constant ⅜ rhythm.
Nor is Brendel's "Appassionata" (Opus 57, [CD.8 tr.s 8-10]) quite so fiery as it might be. The last movement is built in part out of our expectation of the final, defiant chords. The tonality of these has been hinted at throughout the rest of the movement, the rest of the sonata, even. Brendel is measured, calmer almost; certainly not strident. Some listeners will miss the passion of a Gieseking or Kovacevich. But repeated listenings reveal a pace, a measure and a refusal to be bullied by the music that still leaves us breathless. No fireworks. Much technique. All passion.
One knows that because one is struck at the end of each sonata (and group of sonatas) by Brendel's grasp of structure, of the architecture, of what Beethoven must have had in mind for each of these creations. Somehow Brendel is able not only to sense what this probably was; but – importantly – he's able to convey it to the listeners. So there is not a whiff of self-indulgence in Brendel's playing, for all his liberality. Although aware of occasion, he seems to be considering each performance as a work in progress. Something to which he may return and may well see differently. Indeed the extent to which he becomes involved in each performance is surely one reason for his vocal accompaniment, the sotto voce "groans" that – mercifully – don't actually punctuate his playing but comment on it.
For many, the late sonatas would be reason enough to buy this (or any other) cycle. They have, of course, a special place in most people's musical hearts. That Brendel affords them no privilege over the rest of the corpus sums up his approach: again, his is playing of someone who has them in their blood. And it's not going too far to say that the light he throws on the early and middle period works is bright and revealing: listen to the way he pulls out every nuance in the adagio molto of Opus 10, #1 [CD.3 tr.2], for example. The latitude he allows himself has as much to do with the familiarity and confidence that comes from this as from anything self-indulgent. His is a pianism full of awareness and a wish to project; not one which puts any one work on a pedestal.
By the time he reaches the end of Opus 111 [CD.10 tr.s 8,9] with its marking Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, Brendel's undemonstrative attachment to the music has become utterly convincing: the pauses, phrasing and sense of direction surely work as well as almost any on record. If one weren't already aware of Brendel's ability to play this music from the inside yet confer upon it all the expressiveness (in this case simplicity and singability), such an awareness is soon confirmed on even a glancing familiarity with this sonata. He blends a style where each note matters (it has to) but is in service of the overall sense of the sublime which inspired Beethoven as he wrote his last sonata. The whole finally explains the parts – and encourages one to return to the start and listen again and again.
The booklet that comes with the 10-CD set is a bit of a compromise. Brendel's own thoughts on what it's meant to him to play this body of music over the years would have been welcome. Indeed, when recitals of his formed a memorable series of late Sunday afternoon concerts on BBC Radio 3 in 1996, the pithy, pointed and poignant yet modest spoken introductions which Brendel recorded enhanced the series immensely. In this case we have an eight-page survey by Philip Radcliffe of the corpus. And the necessary track listings. Radcliffe explains convincingly the limitations of the Three Period model in the case of the piano sonatas. Given the modest price of the set, though, that there is little else in the notes is not a huge lack.
The fact that it's not so easy to pull out particular movements, sonatas or groups is again indicative of the overall strengths of this Brendel set. It is a vision of what the repertoire means to Brendel (secondarily); and primarily of the depth and significance both for music and musicians and listeners. In that sense, it's a very even cycle.
Other sets which should be seriously considered as representative of the best sets of the Beethoven sonata cycle are those by Schnabel (EMI Références CHS763765-2) in mono from the 1930s; Kempff (DGG 447966-2) from the LP era, Goode (Nonesuch 79328) recorded in the early 1990s and Kovacevich (EMI 72435-62700-2) more recently. This reissue of the later, Decca, Brendel, set can safely be added to those landmark recordings and is thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.