From the archives to the airwaves: a rare opportunity to hear 1975 SPCO concerts with Alfred Brendel

Above: 1975 broadcasts on tape reels in the Minnesota Public Radio vault. More than 400 historic SPCO concert broadcasts have been digitally restored and preserved.

In continued celebration of its 50th anniversary, Minnesota Public Radio will rebroadcast two phenomenal 1975 concerts in which the SPCO played all five Beethoven concertos. MPR will play one of the archived concerto recordings each morning from December 11–15.

These magnificent concerts were performed on October 23 and 25, 1975. Under the guidance of Musical Director Dennis Russell Davies, the SPCO held a Beethoven piano concerto festival with celebrated Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel. Hailed as “one of the finest living interpreters of the Viennese classical repertoire” (Roy Close, Minneapolis Star), Brendel performed all five Beethoven piano concertos in two programs. The concerts were recognized as “musicianship of the very highest order” by John Harvey (St. Paul Pioneer Press, Oct. 27, 1975). And they were recorded and archived by MPR!

Original 1975 poster for the concerts

Tune in at 10 a.m. to hear these incredible slices of SPCO history:

  • Monday, Dec. 11: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 15
  • Tuesday, Dec. 12: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, Opus 19
  • Wednesday, Dec. 13: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 37
  • Thursday, Dec. 14: Piano Concert No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58
  • Friday, Dec. 15: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, Opus 73

Playing all five Beethoven piano concertos is a challenge. As critic Harvey noted: “The difficulty was not simply that of performing about three hours’ worth of music. …more fundamentally, the challenge… was to fashion compatible interpretations of five exceedingly different works.”

The concerts were a success with “prolonged standing ovations and rhythmic applause.” Harvey went on to say: “In a performance of unusually wide dynamic range, Brendel’s articulation was superb in its clarity, and his phrasing had a supple and humane expressiveness. Many of the runs, too, were like strings of matched pearls.” And the SPCO? “The musicians played in inspired fashion. Davies…kept the orchestra firmly meshed and balanced.”

Close found Brendel’s playing to be “incomparably expressive. He approached each concerto as if it were something organic…his interpretations all seemed vibrantly alive.”

Charles Ullery, who in 1975 had just begun his 22-year tenure as Principal Bassoon, remembers that the concerts were inspiring, particularly due to Davies’ leadership. “The SPCO was a completely different organization and orchestra than it is today,” he recalled. “Dennis Davies was an amazing conductor. The orchestra was enthusiastic. Similar to today, there was an enormous work ethic. Since the SPCO is a small group, there’s no way you can hide when you are playing.”

“Davies was a particularly generous guy, and demanding at the same time,” Ullery continued. “He knew the scores so well and he knew them from an ensemble perspective. He had some sixth sense about when you might need some extra help. Maybe he could read body language. He would look at you and give that extra cue. It was kind of magical what he could do. He drew a lot out of everyone.”

“Dennis Davies was the ideal artistic partner,” Ullery muses. “He nurtured and prepared the SPCO to be on the map, so we were ready when Pinchas Zukerman came along. Alfred Brendel was among a string of outstanding international musicians Dennis brought to play with us.”

As our longtime broadcast partner Minnesota Public Radio continues its 50th anniversary celebration, we can’t think of a better way to look back on our collaboration than to hear these historic broadcasts.