Complete Piano Sonatas Box set
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In 1992, Alfred Brendel set about recording every piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. The beauty of those works and the legendary imaginative powers of Brendel combined to earn rapturous praise, and this new set brings all those magnificent performances together. Behold his transformative interpretations of these treasured piano sonatas: No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 "Pathetique"; No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata"; No. 15 in D, Op. 28 "Pastoral"; No. 21 in C, Op. 53 "Waldstein"; No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 "The Tempest"; No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opt. 27 No. 2 "Moonlight"; No. 29 in B Flat, Op. 106 "Hammerklavier"; No. 26 in E Flat, Op. 81a "Les Adieux" , and more on 10 CDs!
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There are many moments in these sonatas where Brendel's playing seems scaled down compared to Arrau's and you often end up thinking he's missed an opportunity to make a statement. Arrau, on the other hand, has often been accused of excessive point-making; and while Brendel too can belabor a point, he doesn't often go to Arrau's length. But it is in the process of reaching for the stars that Arrau, who may occasionally reach too far, reveals more of Beethoven's conflicted/spiritual aspects and no doubt, more of himself as well.
The sound-world of these pianists also comes into play. Arrau is plush and organ-like and while very modern in his playing still incorporates rhetorical flourishes that are reminiscent of the 19th century giants from whom he descended (Arrau's only teacher was Martin Krause, the last pupil of Liszt). This is especially evident in his traversal of the late sonatas, which to my way of thinking, has never been surpassed. Brendel is more compact, if not austere, in his playing which has a bell-like ring to it (if you could call him a descendant of anyone, it would be Kempff). Sometimes he makes a clipped ratta-tat-tat sound, as in the rondo of the Waldstein sonata, where Arrau's pianistic finish is just more sophisticated. And there is a tendency toward the finicky that can be bothersome (opp. 7 and 28 are representative). Yet Brendel's playing can also have an unsettling rattling element which makes his performance of the Moonlight sonata one of the best I've heard. This same rattling effect can be heard in the Tempest sonata, which is also excellent.
Let me say that I was prepared to be disappointed from the outset after listening to the first two sonatas (op. 2 nos. 1 & 2), which are missing the joy of early Beethoven and lend credence to the "cerebral" label so often attached to Brendel. Certainly these sonatas are well thought out, perhaps even a little too well thought out as they have a calculated feel to them. Opus 2, no. 3, on the other hand, sparkles. There are ups and downs from this point on as not everything is equally inspired - indeed, there is no ideal set of Beethoven sonatas. Sonatas no. 5 and 6 are from recitals and both succeed very well (too bad the applause wasn't edited out though). And Brendel really shines in the two op. 14 sonatas and also in op. 22. Perhaps his matter-of-fact treatment of the funeral march from the the op. 26 sonata is a little lightweight, missing the gravitas that Arrau brings to it. Missing too is the contrast that Arrau draws between this movement and the sunlit finale. His insistent finding and/or infusion of meaning is in contrast to Brendel's more straightforward approach, which doesn't lack imagination but sometimes just doesn't reach the same high level of inspiration. A case in point is the second movement of the thirteenth sonata, one of my favorites, which Brendel efficiently dispatches, but which the visionary Arrau transforms into a statement of kaleidoscopic proportions. There is simply no comparison between the two. Having said that, let me point out that Brendel is far from superficial - in fact, his sonatas are for the most part well balanced and sometimes can be a refreshing tonic to Arrau's persistent inwardness.
I was pleasantly surprised by Brendel's readings of the late sonatas. The Hammerklavier, recorded live(!), is outstanding, as is his reading of op. 101. He also turns in a fine op. 111, sounding, in fact, very much like Arrau. I was less taken with op. 109 where some of the phrasing is too plain - but I recall Harris Goldsmith calling Arrau's phrasing in the late sonatas "Furtwanglerish" (which was meant to be a pejorative) and even though his readings may border on overstatement, to me they are infused with an epic grandeur that has never been equaled.
In summary, if you are looking for a Beethoven cycle in digital sound that reflects the Kempff style of playing, then you'll be satisfied with Brendel.
The overall effect of the new set is positive enough to warrant recommendation to anyone who does not have a specific distaste for Brendel, but not quite enough to say toss the old set. I have a feeling I'll enjoy comparing these two sets for a long time. If I had to recommend one over the other I would choose the new set. Having both is better than either one alone. Of course, whether the reader of this review would agree with anything written here is another matter. I suggest listening to sample clips.
One thing I'll say for Brendel is that he gives me the impression of an astonishing degree of control of touch, and an uncanny feel for utilizing the sound of the notes after striking them. Once a key is struck on a piano, nothing can be done with it except to lift off the key or pedal to silence it. But a skilled solo pianist can play with these voices like a good chamber player uses the sounds of other players in combination with his own to sculpt something beautiful. One example of this is what Brendel does in the first movement of Waldstein at bar 68 where the shimmering quasi trill line emerges from the decay of the emphasized fp strike of the left hand on the first beat. It may be that the first note on bar 68 is held a bit longer than the text warrants, but I don't care. The notes that follow are made even more effective in the wake of the decay, and the effect impressed me. However, other listeners might react very differently to what Brendel does with the music, so again I would urge the curious reader of reviews to seek out audio clips to sample.
It is true it was recorded for Philips (Brendel second set for Philips), but after Universal bought Philips, the time to use "Philips" brand name was limited and it seems all the back catalogue from Philips will appear under Decca lebel (or DG).
This set is excellent and at its time won the best prices from specialised critic.