"The Last Recording," Sony Classical has dubbed its valedictory Horowitz release, taped shortly before the legendary pianist's death last year. But in fact - and this is one of two surprises - to my knowledge every one of these tracks represents a first recording by him of the work in question.
The other surprise is the performances themselves, a world away from the ultrabrilliant intensity that made his name a household word. Which is to say this is the most relaxed Haydn I have heard from Horowitz, a gracefully articulated account of the E flat major Sonata, H. XVI:49, that suffers only in the slow movement, where more than a few romantic mannerisms rear their head.Nor do things always sound as spontaneous as they might in the Chopin selections. Witness the overt calculation of the Op. 56, No. 3 Mazurka and twists and turns of the "Fantasie-Impromptu," in which nothing really unfurls naturally. But for maturity and technical savvy I would not want to be without the Op. 25 Etudes, Nos. 1 and 5, or the dark brilliance of the two Liszt pieces, especially "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" athough the transcription of the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan" does make for an imposing swan song. (Reportedly it was the last thing the pianist recorded.)
Did I say two surprises? Make that three, as Sony, working in Horowitz's living room, has clothed these performances in sound that surpasses even what DG was giving us toward the end of its association with him. Particularly on the low end, here rich and solid, counterbalancing the fabled high register with its occasional touch of brittleness.
At age 98 there is, I suppose, always the possibility that any of Mieczyslaw Horszowski's recordings could turn out to be his last. Nor on his latest recital from Elektra Nonesuch will you hear the kind of precision almost taken for granted in this post-Horowitz age. Even in his prime, I don't think Horszowski ever strove for that.
What you will hear, though, is invariably musical playing that in its unhurried beauty more than holds its own against the hottest of today's young keyboard titans. Perhaps their Bach may be more stylish, with a sharper edge in places, but I doubt it could glow more radiantly. In addition to which few pianists from any era can have matched the fragrance of his Chopin or the sparkle of his Beethoven, in both of which he can be heard singing along.
At the same time rhythms and structures are never in doubt. Nor is the array of color and dynamics Horszowski is able to pull from the instrument. Yet again what impresses most is the unforced naturalness of his playing, and from an artist who made his debut in 1899!
An immensely satisfying disc.
SCHUBERT: Sonata in A minor, D. 784; Sonata in D major, D. 850. Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips 422063-2 .
SCHUBERT: Sonata in A minor, D. 845; Three Klavierstuecke, D. 946. Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips 422075-2 .
SCHUBERT: Sonata in A major, D. 959; Allegretto in C minor, D. 915; 16 German Dances, D. 783; Hungarian Melody in B minor, D. 817. Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips 422229-2 .
These are the only entries I have been able to sample in Alfred Brendel's latest go at the late Schubert sonatas. Nevertheless they do suggest some overall differences from his earlier efforts.
Certainly this account of the Sonata in A major, D. 959, presents both the pianist and his instrument in sharper focus than his 1971 recording, also for Philips, still available on CD as 411477-2. Not only is the piano itself much more in the picture sonically, but Brendel keeps the music on a somewhat tighter rein, with tempos that are marginally faster in nearly every movement and greater clarity throughout.
The result is a faultlessly articulated reading that may miss some of the melancholy lyricism that made the earlier one so memorable but that manages to draw the listener into the writing even more completely. Thus the finale, one of the loveliest things in all Schubert, may sing a bit less freely than it did there but it still sings, just in a way that appeals more to the head than to the heart.
That same approach works even better in the D. 845 Sonata in A minor, where Brendel's pointed intensity somehow heightens the semi-tragic overtones. Take the proclamatory air of the Scherzo, with its wonderfully inward Trio, or the strength of the finale, a bit rigorous in its logic but ultimately persuasive.
No less forceful are his statements of the D. 784 and D. 850 sonatas, paired on 422063-2. Yet the opening of the D major Sonata breathes more here than it does with Schnabel (Arabesque); ditto the artfully halting Scherzo and Rondo, even if the rhythmic catches are never quite as natural as they used to seem with Badura-Skoda.
Though long out of print, the latter's RCA recording remains in many ways my favorite complete survey of the Schubert piano sonatas, with Kempff's a strong runner-up. At the same there should always be room in the catalog for readings as thoughtful as these. Certainly there is nothing casual about Brendel's playing, either in terms of clarity or immediacy, here or in the fillers. Yet for such an intellectual pianist it comes as something of a surprise to hear him both singing and at one point even talking to himself, a la Horszowski, in the finale of the D. 850 Sonata. Clearly he was moved by the music, and I suspect in nearly any of its incarnations you will be too.