Alfred Brendel Live in Vienna = SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto; BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel – Alfred Brendel, piano/ Vienna Phil. Orch./ Sir Simon Rattle – Decca 

by | Apr 2, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews

Music of Schumann and Brahms graces these two appearances in Vienna by Alfred Brendel, testaments to his mastery of the Romantic idiom.

Alfred Brendel Live in Vienna = SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 54; BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 – Alfred Brendel, piano/ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle – Decca 483 3288, 58:57 (3/9/18) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

The venerable Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel (b. 1931) performs Schumann and Brahms in the Great Concert Hall, Vienna in two distinct appearances: in the Schumann Concerto with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic (11 March 2001) and the Brahms Handel Variations (4 June 1979).  Given Brendel’s retirement from the concert stage in 2008, we may relish those sound documents that surface by dint of circumstance and devoted friends. The Brahms work, for which Brendel has often expressed divided sympathies about its conservative musical means, exists in this rendition because the Austrian Radio archives maintained it. Subsequently, Brendel notes that he feels grateful, in that his performance could “register the wealth of different characters, the color economy and masterful disposition of the pieces, and [I] could marvel at the contrapuntal and pianistic power of the fugue.”

The Schumann Piano Concerto (1845) has become such a common staple of the Romantic repertory that its virtues too easily pass unnoticed. The piano springs forth boldly enough, but the designation Allegro affetuoso suggests that unbridled passion cede to genial good will. The distinctive oboe part, with its opening gambit C-B-A-A, might easily refer to “Chiara,” Schumann’s pet name for his wife, Clara. No less prominent, the clarinet, adds its own especial color. That Schumann had helped score Clara’s own Concerto in A Minor more than likely resonates within the various transformations of the singular, melancholy theme that defines the first movement. Each theme, each progressive phrase, repeats, and so impresses a kind of Classical symmetry upon the otherwise subjective poetry of the music. The solo part, more lyrical outpouring than clamoring bravura, only exerts its true athleticism in the cadenza.

Legend has it that Schumann completed the Intermezzo last of the three movements, finishing it in three days. Tranquil and naïve, the music scampers back and forth, until clarion calls from movement one, soft and then insistent, announce the boisterous Allegro vivace. Schumann combines waltz and march—or better, maerchen, of the fairy tale—in his dexterous progression, in the course of some half-dozen themes. Intermittently, rhapsodic passages appear, some knotty and contrapuntal.  From the outset, Brendel and Rattle reveal unabashed fondness for this work, though their means remain chaste and relatively sober. Each principal appears committed to the light touch, eschewing somber profundity. An unrestrained ardor, however, infiltrates the Intermezzo, whose woodwind figures entwine seductively with Brendel’s fluent keyboard, capped by the luscious VPO strings. The bright, bumptious finale cavorts and sails in rhapsodic fashion, even striking up a somber march. The figures assume an improvised character, bursting into a momentary fit of passion. The fugato section retains a breezy facility, though the resonance of the low VPO strings and the high brass carry their own thunder.  The transformation from minor into the major tonality complete, the last pages reverberate with a sparkling elan, the old war-horse strutting through a brief waltz to a resolute, fervent peroration.

The 1861 Handel Variations, meant as a birthday present to Clara Schumann, look to both the Bach Goldberg Variations and the Beethoven Diabelli Variations as their inspiration.  The theme itself derives from  a 1733 Handel harpsichord suite. Restricting himself to the B-flat Major scale—with the exception of two digressions into the tonic minor—Brahms reveals the iron discipline of his craft, its inexhaustible capacity for unity-in-variety.  The character of the progressions—often in pairs that complement or contrast with each other—embraces gypsy melodies, Hungarian scales, chromatic etudes, canons in contrary motion, a siciliano, a music box, and a series of potent, rising progressions that culminate in the stretto-laden fugue. The various degrees of touch and digital spans alone test the prowess of the most accomplished pianist, a testament to Brahms—who, like Rachmaninov—wrote to suit the capabilities of his own hands.  The complementary Variations XIV and XV resound with complex passagework exactly imitative of the same moments in Bach, the Variation Eight’s having made several nods of appreciation to the Beethoven Diabelli set.  Brendel exerts both virtuosic precision and leisure, aristocratic patience in the broad canvas he reveals to us. Several times, the audience is ready to explode in appreciation of his prowess, but his momentum defers their applause. Connoisseurs of the classic performances of this great work will brandish their recordings by Solomon, Petri, Moiseiwitsch, Katchen, Biret, Fleisher, Arrau, Cherkassky, Richter, Schiolor, and Serkin as their “definitive” reading: well, add one more. The Vienna audience figured it out.

—Gary Lemco


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