Alfred Brendel - Artist's Choice - Brendel
Int. Release 15 Dec. 2010
The performance of Schubert's “Wanderer" Fantasy (1970) brings back memories of playing the work in front of an audience of 7,000 in London's Albert Hall. Without having been a virtuoso pianist himself, Schubert managed to provide a piece that tests the player to his limits.
CD 1: Alfred Brendel - Artist's Choice
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Piano Concerto No.17 in G Major, K.453
Alfred Brendel, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)
CD 2: Alfred Brendel - Artist's Choice
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, Op. 106 -"Hammerklavier"
6 Piano Variations in F, Op.34
CD 3: Alfred Brendel - Artist's Choice
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826)
Konzertstück in F Minor, Op. 79
Alfred Brendel, London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Ferruccio Busoni (1866 - 1924)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
[Weber / Konzertstück]: The opening pages of Alfred Brendel's 1979 recording with Abbado and the LSO are lovingly sculpted. The piano entry and restatement of the theme are beautifully poised, the skittering runs before the "Allegro passionato" section have exactly the right wistful, improvisatory air, Abbado lets the woodwind sing above the piano's bubbling semiquavers, and Brendel observes every accent and "staccato" marking in a way that few do. Likewise, few conductors in this piece catch their soloist, as Abbado does, with such unerring precision in the "tutti" entries . . . the finale -- uninhibited and exuberant but never superficially flashy -- comes as a surprise, not least the great whoosh he gives to the two "glissandos".
C'est un grand cru brendélien ["Hammerklavier"], irrésistible d'allure, de construction, de détermination, à la mesure du grand oeuvre beethovénien.
The MusicVirtually all of Bach's keyboard concertos are transcriptions. Some of them are based on violin concertos by Bach himself, or by such composers as Vivaldi and Marcello, while others recycle movements from his cantatas. However, the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 is an original composition, and one that recreates the concerto idiom in terms of the keyboard alone. The harpsichord's two manuals enabled Bach to reproduce the dynamic contrasts between
tutti and solo passages that underlie the concerto form, as well as to have a melody unfolding in an expressive forte simultaneously with an accompaniment played piano. In the slow movement's long-spun cant i lena we seem to hear an oboe, with an accompaniment in smoothly rising and falling phrases played by the strings, and punctuated by a repeated-note pizzicato from the basses.
The pairing of the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904 is probably not Bach's own, though the two pieces complement each other quite satisfactorily. The Fantasia is rigorous and severe, without a hint of the improvisatory style often associated with such pieces; while its companion-piece is actually a double fugue, with a rhythmically well defined first subject eventually giving way to a second fugue theme in smoothly descending chromatic notes, and the two combined to exhilarating effect in the closing pages.
A renewed interest in the fugue is one of the defining characteristics of Beethoven's late music, whose fugal finales culminate in the colossal examples, both in the key of B flat major, of the “Hammerklavier" Sonata, op. 106 and the String Quartet, op. 130. The grandiose “Hammerklavier" was initially conceived as a homage to Beethoven's most ardent patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, and the strident fanfares of its opening bars were designed to fit the words “Vivat, vivat Rudolphus!" Those fanfares seem to be parodied at the start of the miniature scherzo that follows, while the Adagio - the most profoundly tragic of all Beethoven's slow movements for piano - is a piece of which Liszt's performance was likened to “an eyewitness of secrets of a world beyond the grave".
In 1802, some fifteen years before he began work on the “Hammerklavier" Sonata, Beethoven reportedly declared himself dissatisfied with his music thus far, and he intended to embark on a new path. That year he sent two sets of piano variations to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel (one of them was based on the same theme as the finale of the “Eroica" Symphony), pointing out that they were worked out “in a quite new way, each in another different manner". Beethoven's insistent claim was no mere piece of salesmanship: both sets show a wilful determination to be original from the very first, and the Variations in F major, op. 34 actually discard the basic tenets of variation-writing altogether. Rather than have successive variations in the same key and tempo, which was the normal procedure in works of the kind, the op. 34 set presents a series of character pieces, each in a different key, metre and tempo. Only the coda makes a return to the original status quo, with an intricately elaborated version of the theme.
The year 1784 was one that saw Mozart compose no fewer than a half-dozen piano concertos, with four of them completed in rapid succession between February and April. The last in this preliminary group was the G major Piano Concerto, K. 453 - one of Mozart's rare concertos to have a finale in variation form. He was delighted when he found a tame starling that seemed to whistle its “chirping" theme, and he purchased it on the spot. So high-spirited is the concerto's finale that its closing pages abandon variation form and instead step into the world of opera buffa. The concerto was admired sufficiently by Beethoven for him to appropriate the opening movement's striking usage of “interrupted" cadences, thwarting the music's expected resolution and taking it in a new direction, for similar dramatic use in his Violin Concerto and Triple Concerto.
In the spring of 1815 Weber informed the prominent critic Friedrich Rochlitz that he was planning a piano concerto in F minor. “But since concertos in the minor seldom work with the public without a specific, evocative idea," said Weber, “a kind of story for the whole thing has quite strangely and involuntarily insinuated itself in me, from whose threads the movements will be ordered and receive their character, and moreover one so detailed and dramatic that I shall have to give them the following titles: Allegro, Parting. Adagio, Lament. Finale, Profoundest grief, Consolation, Reunion, Jubilation." When Weber finally got round to composing his concerto some six years later, he decided to forge it into a continuous Konzertstück with a slow opening section accelerating into a passionate Allegro, an orchestral march beginning in the distance, and a brilliant finale. Weber himself gave the first performance, to “huge applause", as he proudly reported, on 25 June 1821.
Also a continuous piece, though much more strongly unified, is Schubert's “Wanderer" Fantasy, D 760, composed in the following year. Virtually everything in it springs from the dactylic rhythm of the song fragment that forms the basis of its slow second section, and in common with Beethoven's “Hammerklavier" Sonata its scherzo mocks the grandeur of the work's opening subject, while the finale is a forceful fugue. Both the “Wanderer" Fantasy and Weber's Konzer t stück had a profound influence on Liszt, who performed the Weber on several occasions and made his own transcription of Schubert's piece for piano and orchestra.
Liszt completed his two Legends in 1863, during the period when he was living in a monastic cell at the Madonna del Rosario, about an hour's journey from Rome. The first of the pair depicts St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds, whose song is evoked in trills and “chirping" sounds, and their flight in arabesques. When St Francis eventually addresses his feathered friends, he does so first in recitative and then in solemn chords. (The latter section is borrowed from Liszt's Cantico del Sol di San Francesco d'Assisi for baritone, male chorus, organ and orchestra.) The second Legend recounts the story of St Francis of Paola, who, having arrived at Messina, was unable to pay his passage on a boat to Sicily. Liszt portrays the saint's miraculous feat of walking across the water by means of a serene theme floating above turbulent waves. The music again ends in recitative style and with a self-quotation - this time from a work for male chorus and organ, An den heiligen Franziskus von Paula.
No less vividly pictorial is the famous collection of pieces by Mussorgsky which he initially contemplated entitling simply “Hartmann". He had met the architect and artist Viktor Hartmann in 1870 and was inspired by a memorial exhibition some three years later to compose a suite of piano pieces. The musical depiction of the pictures themselves is punctuated by a recurring “promenade", suggesting the composer walking from one exhibit to the next, whose simple folk-like melody serves to throw into relief the almost Expressionist style of the remainder of the work. However, in two instances the opposing worlds are reconciled: in the third “promenade" Mussorgsky seems to glimpse “The ballet of the unhatched chicks" out of the corner of his eye a few seconds before he arrives in front of it; while the “horror" scene of “Catacombae" leads him to compose an eerie interlude (“Cum mortuis in lingua morta") in which the promenade theme is accompanied throughout in shadowy tremolo. The concluding “Great Gate of Kiev" incorporates the sounds of chanting and of bells, before rising to a climax of overwhelming grandeur.
Busoni's Toccata, completed in 1920, was his last important piano work. It is intimately bound up with two of his operas: the opening Preludio transcribes the “Story of Lippold the Jew-Coiner" from the third tableau of Die Brautwahl (in the stage work the glittering figuration represents the flames flickering around the stake at Lippold's execution); while material from the following Fantasia resurfaces in the Duchess of Parma's scene from the first tableau of Do k tor Faust, and the concluding Ciaconna is related to the ensuing dialogue between the Duke of Parma and Mephistopheles. For all its dazzling virtuosity, the Toccata is an uncompromisingly abrasive piece - “very severe, and not terribly pleasant", as the composer himself once admitted. Alfred Brendel has remarked of Busoni's late piano works in general that “the erosion of the years has not smoothed over their unyielding surface".
© 2010 Misha Donat11/2010
This is a further special selection from my recordings which I have been asked to compile on the occasion of my eightieth birthday. It extends and supplements those CDs that I had previously assembled as “Artist's Choice". In this new set one of my latest and one of my earliest Philips recordings rub shoulders, documenting a long and happy association with this label (now part of Decca). The performance of Schubert's “Wanderer" Fantasy (1970) brings back memories of playing the work in front of an audience of 7,000 in London's Albert Hall. Without having been a virtuoso pianist himself, Schubert managed to provide a piece that tests the player to his limits.
Mozart's delicious G major Concerto K. 453 was a particular favourite of the late Sir Charles Mackerras whose freshness and Mozartian insight I much admired. It was recorded in 2004. The Bach recordings happened, as it were, by accident; they were done when I finished the sessions of a Liszt programme one day early.
The performance of Beethoven's “Hammerklavier" Sonata, op. 106 was taken by the Austrian Radio during a Beethoven Sonata cycle at the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna. Of my five recordings of this piece, this is the one I prefer. Beethoven's lovely Variations op. 34 are unconventional in a number of ways. They present each variation in a different key, tempo and character, a concept that, strangely enough, failed to break ground.
The third CD gathers inspired programme music. The exception is Busoni's Toccata - in another live recording from Vienna -, a piece for a fearless virtuoso in the forbidding key of A flat minor. Weber's Konzertstück deals with a crusader, much missed by his lady, whose return from the Holy Land is depicted by a gradually approaching march. At the moment of recognition the pianist bursts in with a double glissando. Weber's music fuses naiveté and chivalrous elegance while Liszt, in his Legends, precariously links poetic introspection and brilliance. It is left to the skill of the performer whether the listener is moved by the purity of the two Saints or pianistically drowned.
In spite of all orchestral arrangements, Mussorgsky's Pictures have not lost any of their striking eloquence. This is a work completely unlike any other. It is good to return to the original piano version that conveys the essence of the music without a note too many.