Alfred Brendel

Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum; L'arbre de Noël; The Christmas Tree

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In the 1950s, a number of small American record companies did "runaway" recording in post-war Germany and Vienna, taking advantage of the cheap recording costs, talent and the impact Musicians Unions had on recording in the United States. One of the first Americans to cross the pond for this purpose was ex-pat German conductor F. Charles Adler of the SPA ("Society of Performing Artists") label, which emphasized under-recorded literature and sought to capitalize on the extended running time of a new format -- the long-playing record. Adler has gone down in history as being the first conductor to record the Mahler Third Symphony, however it is no small achievement that he was also the first to record, and to recognize the talent of, pianist Alfred Brendel. Brendel made his recording debut on the SPA label with a recording of Franz Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum (known in English as "The Christmas Tree Suite"), a suite of Christmas carol settings for solo piano dating from Liszt's late period that no one had yet recorded. Brendel was only 20 years old in 1951 and at the start of his long career as a recording artist. While he has recorded a lot of Liszt since then, even during his "runaway" recording period where he made recordings for Vox and Vanguard among others, Brendel has not since returned to Weihnachtsbaum.

Although this performance was once widely circulated on various LP labels, this Disques XXI-21 release appears to be the only CD of Brendel's Weihnachtsbaum. The sound quality of SPA recording was not so great to start with, and the CD -- which appears to originate with a very clean copy of the LP -- sounds a little gated and loud passages tend to blast, although that problem likely goes back to the LP. However, it is a very clear transfer and, considering the quality of the source, more than acceptable. Brendel is lively and spontaneous in this recording, his first, but there is some vestige of his famed balance, clarity and control even here. Anyone interested in Alfred Brendel enough to want to hear how he started out should look for this; and though some of the sentiments expressed in the liner notes are open to debate, the eight-panel foldout insert is at least nicely illustrated.

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