Beethoven piano sonatas times three

Classical Sounds

December 15, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven, The Complete Piano Sonatas, performed by Alfred Brendel (Philips 446 909-2):

With this 10-CD set, Brendel becomes the first pianist to have recorded Beethoven's 32 sonatas three times. Since Brendel's two previous recordings -- a set for Vox recorded in the early 1960s, and one for Philips in the 1970s -- are still available, one may ask if this third supersedes the previous the two.

The answer is no -- and yes. The pianist's first recording, which is available at a super-budget price, remains a fine achievement. But, it does not represent -- as the last two sets do -- the mature Brendel's thoughts on the greatest body of piano sonatas in the history of the instrument.

A choice between the two Philips sets, however, is next to impossible to make. The 20 years that separate these recordings have brought both losses and gains.

Some of the losses have to do with the inevitable physical decline that affects a player as he ages. Brendel was 43 when he began work on his first Philips set and 68 when he completed the new set earlier this year.

Not a virtuoso

Where Brendel is concerned, however, pianistic execution matters somewhat less than it does, for example, in the choice between the first and second sets of Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus. Unlike those two great Beethoven interpreters of earlier generations, Brendel was never a great virtuoso. His playing in the fast movements of opus 31, No. 3, HTC and the "Waldstein" and in the fugue of opus 101, was never remarkable for its brilliance; that it is somewhat less brilliant now is not particularly important. Pianistic -- as opposed to musical -- elegance and grace have never been among the reasons one attends a recital by Brendel or buys one of his recordings.

The differences between the two sets are primarily interpretive. If Brendel's new version of opus 81a ("Les Adieux") is more successful than his old one, it is because his searching musicianship and relentless attention to detail have led him to an even more satisfying musical conclusion. And if the pianist's most recent recording of opus 110, the composer's penultimate sonata, is somewhat less transcendently beautiful than that of 20 years ago, it is primarily because the pianist has decided to emphasize details -- unnoticed by him before -- in the concluding fugue that now somewhat impede the music's rapturous ascent into the ether. For better or worse, Brendel's ever-curious mind has rarely permitted him to be satisfied with what he has already achieved.

Brendel the interpreter

But if this is his greatest strength, it is also -- to my ears, at least -- perhaps his greatest weakness. There are two kinds of music making: one in which the interpreter does things to the music and another in which the music does things to the interpreter. Brendel -- for all his scrupulous attention to the text -- belongs to the first group. It has always seemed to me that Brendel is at his least successful when he gets too many chances to interpret. When he has the opportunity to inject humor -- as he does in the playful fugue of opus 101 -- Brendel has a tendency to overdo it, making the music sound too fussy.

This is why, I suspect, he is often at his best with music that is filled with long lines that resist his scorched-earth attention to textual detail. He is a more successful interpreter of the "Waldstein" than the "Appassionata" and of opus 110 than opus 109; in each case, the latter work is filled with much shorter melodic motifs.

Yet, one respects Brendel even when one disagrees with him. This is true even on occasions when he disturbs the continuity of the music's pulse. If he takes the second movement of opus 31, No. 1, at an uncomfortably slow pace, for example, it is only because he wants to emphasize the sheer beauty of each detail in the music's ornate tapestry.

Every note Brendel plays represents a lifetime of thought. And if he is a pianist who occasionally may think too much for the music's benefit, one does not have to love everything he does in order to learn from him. That is why Brendel's most recent encounter with the 32 sonatas is essential listening for anyone seriously interested in Beethoven's piano music.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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