[REPOST] Elder statesmen and their scrappy beginnings

…well, really only one: Alfred Brendel.

A lot of people know that, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, before he
hit the big time, Brendel recorded a huge amount of repertoire for a
label called Vox (who later issued discs under the Turnabout, Candide,
and Murray Hill names). The quality – musical and technical – of Vox
releases was always all over the map: typically just acceptable,
sometimes very good, sometimes incredibly bad. Most of this material
has been unavailable for decades, but some of it is now creeping back
into licensure.

Witness the Big Box of Brendel (”The Legendary Mozart and Beethoven
Recordings”) that has popped up on Brilliant (94430; 23 discs). This
contains everything that was in the Murray Hill “Complete Piano Music of
Beethoven” box of 18 LPs, which was one of my first serious record
purchases in 1971.

That set sold me, big time, on the concerti, but failed to win me over
to the sonatas. From then until now, I had never really thought about
why that was. Re-listening to the sonatas now, I’m sorry to have to say
that, for the most part, they are just not that good. They are also not
bad enough to be worth analyzing exactly why and how they are bad. But
in 1971, knowing no better, I blamed the music.  (@ 31 December 2020: My recommended alternatives for the sonatas: Anne Øland on Membran or Melodie Zhao on Claves.)

The concerti, on the other hand, are definitive, even though neither the
orchestral accompaniments nor the recordings are up to today’s
standards. I actually like the thin, raw sound of these small (and
possibly pickup) orchestras. I think it fits the style; maybe that’s
just me. And although the sound is very close and somewhat shrill, it
is nowhere muddy or overloaded and shows up every detail of the scoring.

Besides the Beethoven, the Brilliant box also contains a handful of
Mozart concerti, some of which (K453, K503, K595) are as good as
anything ever committed to disc. K459 and K466 are disappointing,
sabotaged by cautious and colorless orchestral playing; Vox had a much
better LP of these two, with Ingrid Haebler (recorded in 1958 with the
doubtless-pseudonymous “Vienna Pro Musica Orchestra“; I have not heard
her later complete set on Philips).

(originally posted 15 July 2015)

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