This gargantuan 35-disc set of Alfred Brendel's complete Vox, Turnabout, and Vanguard recordings released in late 2008, concurrent with his retirement from concert life, will be mandatory listening for anyone who reveres the Austrian virtuoso. When these recordings were made between 1955 and 1975, Brendel was at the start of his international career, and his performances here have a fire, energy, and a drama that his later recordings sometimes lack. Brendel devotees, however, may also find his performances lack the intellectual rigor of his middle period recordings and the poetic depths of his later recordings. Compare his demonic account of Mozart's Twentieth Concerto here, for instance, with his more elegant later account. The difference is clear.
Indeed, Brendel recorded the same repertoire over and over again during his career, and more often than not his later recordings have more to offer. The Beethoven piano sonatas issued here, for instance, are the first of three complete sets of those works that Brendel recorded. That doesn't mean this package does not contain excellent performances: Brendel's Liszt sonata is brilliant and his Diabelli Variations are full of character. But it does mean that few of these performances represent definitive Brendel except for the few works he only recorded once. Of those, his accounts of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Balakirev's Islamey, and especially Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petroushka are absolutely worth hearing. The monaural and stereo sound, though clearly antique, is for the most part clean and acceptable.