I recently opened the biggest box set of music I’ve ever seen: Alfred Brendel: The Complete Philips Recordings. It takes a bit of time to listen to all 114 CD’s (!), especially if you want to savor each one, which you should. The box is so heavy it also could probably be used for weightlifting in home gyms. But joking aside, we get the complete portrait of the legendary pianist in this set: as a solo artist, a soloist with orchestra, his work in chamber ensemble settings, and as an accompanist in duet sonata performances. This humongous collection is not for everybody, but for Brendel fans–and there are many around the world–it is manna from heaven.
Alfred Brendel has an international cult audience because of the purity of his interpretation and playing. He does not superimpose his personality on what he plays; he is not a flashy pianist or person either. With him one has the inescapable feeling that his ego, his presence, is subsumed by the composer he is interpreting.
The most astonishing thing, however, is that he was not classically trained. He once said in a film documentary about him, with his typical modesty, “My career is atypical. I have not been a child prodigy. I’m not Jewish or from Eastern Europe. My parents were not musicians, there was no music in the house. I have a good memory, but not a phenomenal one. I’m not a good sight reader. Well…I’m completely at a loss to explain why I made it.”
Beethoven’s 32 sonatas are a religious experience for purists, and Brendel is unsurpassed in his reading of them. This massive collection includes two complete Beethoven piano sonata cycles (the 1970’s Decca recordings as well as the later Philips versions that he recorded some twenty years later) plus three versions of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, three cycles of the Beethoven piano concerti.
The set further features exquisite recordings of Schubert and Schumann lieder (German art songs). These show Brendel as an exceptional accompanist. It also includes Brendel’s only recording of Bach, and his interpretation is sublime. Add to this his Mozart recordings — two almost complete cycle recordings of the piano concertos minus the early 1-4 and a double piano concerto #10. Then there is also Brendel’s fondness for Liszt, with incredible interpretations that Brendel lists as his personal favorites. Finally, Brahms’ two piano concerti, as well as the great Schumann Concerto in A minor, and the powerful Mussorgsky classic Pictures at an Exhibition.
What else can I say? This is the biggest, most extravagant collection I have ever seen. It is a tour de force unequalled in classical music. There is majesty and nobility in these recordings. The only problem I see with it is–where do you put this large cube of musical ecstasy? And please be careful not to get a hernia lifting it.
Here is a Japanese video of Brendel performing the first movement of Beethoven’s final sonata, No. 32.
And Brendel playing Beethoven Piano Concerto #5, second movement.