Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2009 and the recording is still available.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Brendel plays Mozart in Vienna
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.9 in E flat, K271, Jeunehomme (1777)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.14 in E flat, K449 (1784)
Sonata for Piano No.8 in a minor, K310 (1778)
Alfred Brendel (piano), I Solisti di Zagreb/Antonio Janigro
rec. Vanguard, 1968 (Concertos), 1966 (Sonata)
Alto ALC1047 
As a member of World Record Club in the early 1960s one was often in demand from musical friends anxious to obtain recordings available only from WRC. These included some Colin Davis recordings, later released on EMI and Classics for Pleasure, and Everest recordings, including the first recording of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.9. Most of all, though, it was the early Vox recordings of Alfred Brendel in Mozart that created a stir. Though the accompaniment, from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Paul Angerer, and the recording left something to be desired, these rapidly acquired cult status, especially when they were later released at 99p on the Turnabout label. More recently some of these Vox recordings have appeared on super-budget labels Vox, Regis and Tuxedo, all well worth trying.
Brendel was soon snapped up by Vanguard, however, who recorded him more effectively – often on three-track tapes – and gave him a better team of accompanists, the Solisti di Zagreb under Antonio Janigro, who also went on to make several recommendable recordings for Vanguard in their own right.
The two concertos, K271 and K449, have already led quite an adventurous life on CD, having been available at super-budget price on the Regis label and later, capitalising on the fact that the original recording was made on three channels, on SACD on their ‘home’ label Vanguard. That Vanguard reissue is currently available on two 2-CD set (ATMCD1890 with various fillers, including the Sonata No.8, ATMCD1185 containing Concertos Nos.9, K271, 17, K453, 20, K466, and 24, K491) each for around £10.25.
The two concertos and the sonata also appeared briefly on separate discs as part of a Brilliant Box, in which form they were reviewed in 2002 by Christopher Howell. Now Alto have coupled the two concertos and the sonata on a well-filled super-budget release – excellent value for around £5.
K271 is generally and justifiably regarded as the best of Mozart’s early concertos, not just because it has acquired a nickname, and it was and is a particular favourite of Brendel; he chose to perform it at his farewell concert in 2008. As the brief but informative notes to this Alto release point out, his performance then was much more ‘operatic’ than this early recording which, nevertheless, remains a valuable record of his perfectly justifiable earlier, lighter view of the music.
From the very opening I found this interpretation thoroughly convincing, with no need to make allowances of any kind. The solo playing is entrancing, the accompaniment by a chamber-size orchestra just right and the recording still much more than acceptable. Add the fact that Brendel performs Mozart’s own cadenzas, which have unusually been preserved, and you couldn’t want more. And for all the lightness of touch, Brendel and Janigro don’t down-size the slow movement at all; by an amazing coincidence both he and Imogen Cooper (see below) take 12:49 for this movement. Howard Shelley on Chandos is faster, yet still manages not to down-size this movement.
You could have something different and enjoy it without mitigating the pleasure of hearing this early Brendel account. There are, in fact, two modern recordings of K271 that I rate very highly: Imogen Cooper directing the Northern Sinfonia, coupled with No.23, K488 on Avie AV2100 – see Colin Clark’s review – and Howard Shelley, also acting as soloist and director, of the London Mozart Players, coupled with No.17, K453, on Chandos CHAN9068 – see my March 2009 Download Roundup. Cooper offers the frisson of live performances and her version of K271 is coupled with an equally fine account of my favourite among the mature concertos, No.23, K488. Despite the fact that the Avie and Chandos are both digital recordings, they don’t put the Alto reissue in the shade sound-wise; in some respects the older ADD sound is brighter than Avie’s live recording for Cooper and almost a match for Chandos’s for Shelley.
Both Cooper and Shelley offer fresh interpretations with a light touch. I recommended Cooper’s versions of Nos.24, K491, and 25, K503 in my March 2009 Download Roundup, alongside Shelley’s versions of K271 and K453. I stand by what I said about those two very fine performers then; they may, in their different ways, find something here and there that you won’t find in Brendel, but I can’t say that they surpass him. If I lean slightly towards Shelley, it’s a very close-run thing – and bear in mind that he comes at full price, so is more expensive than the Alto, even as a download. You may prefer Cooper’s or Shelley’s couplings. What is remarkable is the fact that I was able to listen to the three performances one after the other without tiring of hearing K271, something which wouldn’t be true of many musical works.
I’m not so sure that I’d want to hear Brendel’s other concerto, K449, quite so many times consecutively, but there aren’t as many rival versions to consider. I’ve yet to catch up with Howard Shelley and the LMP (Chandos CHAN9137, with K595). My comparison, therefore, must be with Jenö Jandó with Concentus Hungaricus/György Ligeti on Naxos 8.550202, a fine performance and recording, coupled with K414 and the excellent K467, well worth having but somewhat outshone by Brendel, who offers an especially sparkling account of the finale. In any case, there are better versions than Jandó’s of K467, including my own favourite, Stephen Kovacevich.
As far as Brendel’s accounts of the two concertos are concerned, I return to CH’s summary of CD1 of the Brilliant Box reissue: ‘With the 1966 recording still sounding very well this is a disc to be remembered alongside Brendel’s more famous later Mozart recordings.’
Nor can I improve on what CH said about CD2 of the Brilliant collection, of which he regarded K310 as the highlight: ‘All in all, this is Mozart playing of the highest calibre and should be heard in all the musical academies of the world as a demonstration that scrupulous observance of the composer’s text in no way inhibits a free-flowing, spontaneous performance of it.’ See the link to this review above, also Jonathan Woolf’s review and Simon Thompson’s review of a more recent Brilliant Brendel reissue including K271 and K449.
Jos van Immerseel, accompanied by the Anima Eterna Orchestra in K413, K415 and K449 offers a very enjoyable experience but the use of ‘authentic’ instruments, including the solo fortepiano, places that recording in a different league from Brendel’s. Immerseel is on Channel Classics CCS0990 – not currently available, though other Mozart Piano Concerto recordings in this series are.
Brendel’s later recordings of K271 remain available on the Philips label: Duo 447 571-2 offers the work in a performance with the ASMF and Neville Marriner, coupled with Nos.15, 22, 25 and 27 – good value for around £9 for two CDs – and on a DDD disc with the SCO and Sir Charles Mackerras, coupled with No.25, K503, at full price on 470 287-2 – see Christopher Howell’s review of the latter.
Even if you have one or more of these rival recordings of K271, you should not hesitate to add this splendid reminder of early Brendel. Coupled with equally recommendable versions of K449 and K310, all three works in recordings which still sound very well, it’s just about the most secure nomination that I’ve made for Bargain of the Month.
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