Alfred Brendel

Schubert: Piano Sonatas, D784, 840, 894, 959, 960

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Of the volumes issued by Philips in its Artist's Choice series dedicated to pianist Alfred Brendel, by far the most interesting volume is this set of five Schubert sonatas. The Beethoven and Haydn/Mozart volumes had largely consisted of previously issued studio recording, but this volume consists entirely of previously unavailable live recordings. The change between Brendel in the studio and live is enormous. Brendel live misses notes, sometimes lots of notes, because Brendel live takes chances, sometimes lots of chances, with the music. In three of the five performances on these discs, Brendel takes chances and succeeds in a big way. The dolorous A minor and the ominous C major sonatas recorded at the 1984 Salzburg Festival are riveting performances, essentially inward but flashing with sudden sforzandos and crashing fortes that wholly belie Brendel's more calculated studio recordings of the works. The immense G major Sonata recorded at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt in 1998 is likewise a compelling performance wholly different from his studio recordings, a performance of uneasy lyricism, restless yearning, and unquiet silences. Unfortunately, the performances of the final A major Sonata recorded at the Maltings, Snape, in 1999 and the final B flat major Sonata recorded at the 1997 Royal Festival Hall are not at the same level. While Brendel misses less notes, his inspiration is cooler and more like his studio recordings in both performances -- the A major Sonata's Andantino central section has nothing of the dementia the music requires and the whole of the B flat major Sonata's Andante sostenuto has less of the despair the music demands. The Salzburg Festival's sound is lovely but edgy; the Frankfurt Oper's sound is close and vivid; the Maltings' sound is big but distant; and the Royal Festival Hall sound is dim and gray.

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