One of the foremost pianists of our time, Alfred Brendel plays the way one might fill out a sudoku puzzle — by methodically adding up smaller moments into an overall structure. That approach well complements the Germanic works that typically make up Brendel's repertoire; it also goes a long way toward explaining why this dignified album is one of Brendel's very few recordings of Chopin, a composer known for his flowery expressivity.
The Polonaises, though, are some of Chopin's most heroic pieces. Inspired by the traditional Polish dance form, Chopin wrote his Polonaises between 1828 and 1849, as an expat, when Poland was rocked by violent uprisings against Russian occupation. Brendel has said he only wanted to record the Polonaises the way he felt they should be played, but it's perhaps worth noting that the Czech-born, expat pianist made this recording in 1968, the year Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.
While other Chopin interpreters often emote by slowing down or rushing in virtuosic flourishes, Brendel sets much of the album to a stately, if sometimes plodding, pace. In the more optimistic passages, his gravity and rich, murmuring tone make you feel like you're hearing the reminiscences of a wise, widowed aunt. It's especially interesting to hear how Brendel interprets one of Chopin's final compositions, the "Polonaise-Fantasie" — the piece rambles like an old man's thoughts. Brendel responds by bringing out the characteristic rhythmic motif of the Polonaise form — a single note repeated three times in quick succession, then continued at half-speed — as though he's reminding us that the piece is a Polish dance, no matter how hard it tries to drift away.
In Op. 40, Brendel's playing morphs from stately to introverted, and then becomes outright dark by Op. 44 (a recording Brendel has said he is particularly proud of); while many other pianists try to shape its transitional march section into a narrative, Brendel plays with a deadpan insistence that makes the passage sound like an instrumental breakdown in a rock & roll song. In the "Andante Spianato" and "Grand Polonaise," Brendel finally brings in more of the sweetness and sparkle we have come to expect from Chopin.
Where so many pianists seem to use Chopin as a vehicle for revealing their intimate neuroses, Brendel plays as transparently as possible; as a result, the recording recreates the feeling of hearing Chopin for the first time, when all you hear is the composer's soaring phrases, unburdened by the baggage of a performer's personality.