SCHUMANN Piano Concerto (Brendel)
‘Next to … Liszt’s Variations on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” … I found the neoclassicist/neo-baroque corset worn by Brahms somewhat irritating.’ So writes Brendel in his mischievous and engaging note, which is why he has never made a commercial recording of Brahms’s Handel Variations, unlike the Schumann Concerto, which he has recorded several times in the distinguished company of Haitink, Abbado and Sanderling.
So do we need another account of the Schumann from Brendel? Yes, when it’s this fine – caught on the wing in the company of the VPO and Rattle in 2001. The orchestral playing is predictably superb, from the solo oboe onwards, with the strings finding myriad colours and shadings. Rattle and Brendel mould a reading that ebbs and flows with complete naturalness. There’s no place for extremes of tempo here; instead, Brendel lets the score be his guide, and the moments where he becomes accompanist are wonderfully subtle. There are odd noises off – at 3'14" in the first movement it sounds as if someone is jangling a pocketful of change – but the distraction is momentary. The aptly flowing second movement possesses a clear-sighted beauty that makes up for the fact that Brendel is not at heart a colourist, and the give and take between soloist and orchestra is utterly genial. The finale treads a middle ground – not as frantic as some readings but with a real one-in-a bar feel that makes it fizzingly alive, Brendel relishing the moments of contrasting delicacy to fine effect. The enthusiastic applause is quickly faded.
The Brahms is also from Vienna, this time 1979. Brendel may have been playfully dismissive of the piece but there’s no sense of halfheartedness about this performance. It’s a work that can sound somewhat strenuous and relentless in the wrong hands – though pianists as different as Perahia and Plowright have shown us what an ebullient piece it can be too. With Brendel there’s no lack of humour, from the first variation onwards, and Brahms’s more chewy writing doesn’t present a technical obstacle (the risoluto octave-writing of Var 4 never becomes vulgar, while Var 23’s bass-centric writing avoids sounding overly heavy). The way the emotional temperature increases through Var 24’s swirling impetuousness to Var 25’s triumphant peroration is unerringly done and the performance is crowned by a mighty account of the closing fugue. This is without question an essential addition to the Brendel discography.