The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
, October 2007
Since 1960, popular Austrian pianist and pedagogue Alfred Brendel had been conducting annual masterclasses in Vienna. Having early in his career recorded the complete piano works of Beethoven, Brendel is noted for the comprehensiveness of his repertoire, not limited to the Viennese school classics, though that obviously is his forte. Now, thanks to the magic of DVD, we are privileged through this 5 DVD set to attend such a masterclass, on the piano works of Schubert.
To be able to play - and oh, so beautifully! - all this great music with its myriad subtleties from memory is a miraculous achievement, a revelation. Brendel probes deeply beyond the printed page to explore Schubert's manuscripts. He points out the paucity of dynamic markings and other indications, particularly those relating to the sustaining pedal. These, he maintains, are meant to convey Schubert's orchestral intentions. Each work is analyzed in depth before being played, and Brendel convincingly illustrates that in a sense, the sonatas - especially the late ones - were in many ways really sketches for symphonies, yet to be orchestrated. (the one in C minor of 1828 is a prime example in support of this thesis).
Brendel begins with the "Wanderer" Fantasy in C, Op.15, an early work that may arguably have inspired Beethoven's monumental "Hammerklavier" Sonata (1818). Both these works have been orchestrated, and go over well as concertos - contradicting long-held claims that they were overlong and unplayable. One of the the tragedies of Schubert's all-too-short life was that he almost never heard his works performed by anyone but himself. For the serious lover of Schubert's music, these discs offer an incomparable opportunity to commune with the composer, through the medium of Brendel's genius.
With the exception of the many dances, most of Schubert's shorter works - the two sets of Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux, and the Three Piano Pieces of 1828 - Schubert's last year - are included, as are all the eight sonatas. Listen to the Impromptu in A Flat, Op. 90 No. 2 and you'll hear where Chopin comes from, or to the left hand figurations in No. 4, that underlie Satie's "Gymnopedies". Schubert was not an operatic composer, but he did write an operetta, "Lilac Time", that earned him the unfortunate reputation as a composer of frivolous music. It remained for Schumann and Brahms to correct that wrong impression - the latter even seeing to the publication of posthumous works of Schubert's, such as the Three Piano Pieces of 1828.
Brendel's delivery in the introductions to the various works is severe. Reading from prepared texts, he speaks slowly and deliberatly, never cracking a smile. But a complete transformation takes place when he begins to play. Each note is caressed lovingly, and phrases are treated reverently. His dynamic control - as in the closing measures of the 2nd Impromptu, Op.142 - pianissimi so soft they are almost inaudible, yet come through clearly. Crossed hands - which Schubert often requires - always retain balance and clarity, and in bravura passages, Brendel's involvement is visceral. These discs reveal the real Schubert, a timid giant among his Viennese contemporaries.