There are pianists fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to record the same works multiple times over the course of their careers, and while the evidence often shows that the process of refining interpretations over long periods of time can produce immensely satisfying results, at other times the revisiting of old territory is a mixed blessing. In some cases the "mature" performances have aged like fine wine, with all kinds of flavors and nuances that were merely hinted at early on; but it's also often true that over the course of time some of the artist's original inspiration or freshness may be lost. Alfred Brendel, who was blessed with a long career, recorded extensively, and is now retired, is interesting in this respect. He recorded all 32 Beethoven sonatas no less than three times and while some believe that his 1960's effort on Vox represents his finest work, others swear by his final set on Philips made in the 1990's. He had a lot of time to rethink things in between, and according to some, to overthink some of those things.
In the case of Schubert, who Brendel has a special affinity for, there are some early recordings made for Vanguard and then there are the late sonatas and impromptus recorded for Philips in the 1970's (Schubert: The Last Three Piano Sonatas D. 958-959-960 and Schubert: The Complete Impromptus), and then the digital series undertaken for Philips between 1987-88 which make up this newly reissued box set. As it happens, these recordings aren't the last word on Schubert from Brendel, given that Philips has issued various live recordings from the pianist under it's "Artist's Choice" program. Indeed, there are mixed messages from the pianist about which of his recordings he preferred. In an introductory note accompanying a Schubert anthology of four sonatas recorded in recitals from 1997-1999 (Schubert: Piano Sonatas, D575, 894, 959 & 960), Brendel calls the performances "correctives, alternatives or supplements to my previous studio recordings." While one of these sonatas (D. 575) makes its first appearance in Brendel's discography, we're left to ask which of the others the pianist feels are "correctives" vs "alternatives." Since Brendel was known to be a perfectionist, it should come as no surprise that the differences between the studio and live readings are matters of subtlety, not substance. The recital readings have a tension that comes with live performance; the studio readings are sharply etched in a way that is also appealing. I like them both.
Brendel has a well-deserved reputation as a distinguished Schubert player. His awareness of the difficulties in Schubert's writing translates into sensitively nuanced interpretations that are grounded in the composer's weltanschauung. While Brendel communicates the proximity of death in the composer's late works, this is not the thematic focus of his Schubert. Instead, there is detailed architectural structure and forward momentum against a backdrop that reflects a genuine understanding of Schubert's musical world. Brendel's approach to Schubert has much in common with Kempff's - both are focused on architecture, tend toward extroversion and play in a relatively straightforward, non-rhetorical way. Kempff is more congenial than Brendel, reflecting a generally sunny disposition that was a trademark of his playing. Both project a Viennese flavor without overdoing it, and while Brendel is more tuned into the sublime element in Schubert, capturing this is not an easy thing to do. Because of the structure of the scores, which seem more like extended fantasies than sonatas, the pianist is challenged to strike a delicate balance between extroversion and introversion, to find and display nuances that can easily be passed over, and to do this without getting bogged down in excessive point-making. Brendel is successful in this respect and while there may be individual recordings that I love from Richter and Zacharias, to name two of my favorite Schubert pianists in addition to the aforementioned Kempff, overall Brendel's tight, stylish readings are among the best I've heard.
I've complained in other reviews about the recorded sound in Brendel's Schubert series, which tends to be rather on the hard side, and wonder whether this can attributed to the instrument - perhaps a Bosendorfer. But this is not enough of an issue to deter prospective purchasers from acquiring this outstanding set, especially given the bargain price Decca has assigned to it.