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A decade after Alfred Brendel’s retirement from performance, his discography remains a vast and rewarding resource. Was this new addition necessary?

Brendel had never recorded Brahms’ Handel Variations in the studio, due to reservations about the work. In a CD booklet note, Brendel explains that he ‘found the neoclassicist/ neo-baroque corset worn by Brahms somewhat irritating’. Then an Austrian Radio archive uncovered this live performance from 1979. Brendel attacks the aria in a brisk, no-nonsense way, eschewing over-reverence, possibly because he had mixed feelings about the piece. His left hand appears to have been used to add gentleness to sometimes astringent playing by the right hand – another expression of divided feelings. Aficionados may still prefer the seductive rendition by Benno Moiseiwitsch, the spirituality of Solomon, the limpidity of Yves Nat, or the considered nuances of Murray Perahia.

By contrast, Brendel recorded the Schumann concerto multiple times. An epic reading from 1997 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Kurt Sanderling set a standard for interiorised eloquence. An earlier effort released in 1986 with the LSO and Claudio Abbado was less epoch-making, due to the conductor’s sluggish tempos.

Dating from March 2001, this performance shows the pianist in fine fettle, playing with joyous freedom, if not reaching the cosmic depth of the version with Sanderling. It is refreshing to hear a Viennese orchestra handle the score. Rattle abstains from the smart-alecky persona which obtruded on some of his early recordings, instead following in the attentive, sustaining tradition of Colin Davis as orchestral partner in piano concertos.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Piano International, 2001 - ©Rhinegold Publishing