Live in Vienna
Simon Rattle, conductor
Live in Vienna: Two Recordings from the Archives
Even though pianist Alfred Brendel announced his retirement from the concert stage in 2008 after his last concert in Vienna (when he played Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 9 under Charles Mackerras’s conduction), his recording history is not over yet. After the release of several other recordings and collections in the last decade, time has arrived for two previously unpublished live recordings from Austrian Radio (ORF) broadcasts, collected under the comprehensive title Live in Vienna.
A long interval divides the two recordings. The one which opens Live in Vienna dates to March 2001 and is Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Brendel played it in the Großer Musikvereinsaal with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Simon Rattle’s conduction. The recording of the other work (Brahms’s Handel Variations) was made more than twenty years before, in 1979. Brendel recorded the Variations in the Großer Konzerthaussaal of the Wiener Konzerthaus. This is, incidentally, Brendel’s first commercially available recording of the Variations.
Despite the lapse of time between the two recordings, the sound of the earlier one is not at all inferior and not very different from the newer. So, the oddity of the choice is somehow overcome. In case, the question is whether it is really necessary to “rediscover” these two recordings after so many years. A quick overview of the performance will answer it.
Live in Vienna: Schumann’s Piano Concerto
Apart from the pianist of the present recording, the Piano Concerto and Handel Variation share an historical connection, as it was Clara Schumann who premiered both, the former in Leipzig in 1846, and the latter in Hamburg in 1861.
Robert Schumann completed only one Piano Concerto, his op. 54, in 1846. Even though the critics of the time considered it distant from the decorative taste which was preferred then, now the Concerto is considered one of Schumann’s most significant works for the variety and quality of its musical invention. From the solo performer, in particular, it requires great skill and self-assurance, qualities that Brendel indisputably has.
Brendel catches the many changing moods of the Piano Concerto and transforms them in an endless variety of nuances. He finds the right balance between vivacity and thoughtfulness and his use of a great range of dynamics allows him an expressive playing together with technical brilliance. The orchestra finely echoes the varied timbral qualities of his playing and the interaction between soloist and ensemble is always perfect. For his part, conductor Simon Rattle elicits from the Wiener Philharmoniker some energetic playing and shimmering colours that are absolutely amazing to hear. In this way, the Piano Concerto reveals an exuberant and enthralling character.
Live in Vienna: Brahms’s Handel Variations
Some critics consider Brahms’s Handel Variations among the best variations ever written. Composed and premiered in 1861, the Variations take Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations as their starting point. Their inventive structure is based on a theme of the greatest simplicity, the Air from Handel’s Suite in B flat.
Brendel gives an intense and commanding performance of the Variations, delivered with technical finish and assurance. What is valuable above all is the smooth and liquid sound he elicits from the piano. Furthermore, Brendel’s shading and dynamics bring the exact quantity of virtuosity, elegance and freshness to this set.
Going back to the question of whether it was really necessary to release an album of this kind after Brendel’s retirement and so many years have passed since the recordings were made, the answer is: yes. The lustrous tone of Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the fine performance of the Brahms’s Handel Variations make them two welcome additions to Brendel’s discography.