Alfred Brendel is as big a superstar as you’ll find in the world of classical music. The well-filled Kennedy Center Concert Hall was teeming with the highest expectations from a pianist who has, for half a century, represented the highest form of musical craftsmanship in the classical repertoire (well confined on record; more diverse in recitals, to Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn). The term “craftsmanship” is deliberately chosen: Brendel has attained his fame solely through the quality and consistency of his performances, not through flashy appearances or particularly dazzling playing. He does not impress with sheer brilliance (as might Maurizio Pollini) or through eccentricity (as did Gould, Michelangeli or Cziffra) or immediately appealing soft and seductive touch (such as is Mitsuko Uchida’s). He is more likely to endear piano music lovers with his musical faculties, impeccable judgement; subtly extracting more sense from a sonata, a movement, a phrase, than most of the (technically more endowed) colleagues half or one third his age ever could. Given the extraordinary expectations and this particular style of playing, some listeners may leave a Brendel recital a bit underwhelmed (though hardly disappointed). But knowing what one is in for – and even just getting a hint of the depth of his interpretation, the intellectual and emotional grasp he has on the presented works, Brendel will amaze. And do so as is his style: unassuming, subtly.
The Haydn sonata in D major, Hob. XVI:42 (no. 56), that opened the recital, a speciality of his and much appreciated in a town that is a comparative Haydn wasteland, exemplified that all too well. Schubert’s G major sonata, D894, is a different beast than the witty Haydn. Assertive and yet mildly sung its opening, Austrian lilt in every phrase: Brendel was able to string the music into a gripping narrative, a story that had you on the edge of your seat, hungrily soaking up every word from the master storyteller who read it to his audience with passion and authority, softly here, dominant there, compelling at every moment. If there had been worry that he might fail to impress, it was eradicated at this moment, at the latest.
F. Schubert, Three Last Piano Sonatas, Sir Alfred Brendel, live, 1988 - London
Even played without repeats, this Schubert sonata is an example of the "heavenly length" often attributed to this composer's works. Composed in 1826, it is in Schubert's mature style -- well, as much as we can say that about someone who died in his early 30s -- and Brendel handled its four rather different movements with consummate artistry. Schubert had such melodic facility, seemingly able to write nothing more easily than a beautiful tune. If a pianist doesn't have a beautiful touch on the keys, Schubert is not the right music to be playing, and this is one of Brendel's greatest strengths.
Intellectually, Brendel is one of the most perceptive interpreters, too, without bringing any of the aridity one fears from cerebral players. When the first theme of the first movement deceptively returned in the development, in a foreign key, it was so bittersweet, preparing for its triumphal return at the recapitulation. This is possible because Brendel understands form and can back up that understanding with such color and texture in his fingertips. His greatest strength is in soft, delicate, nuanced music, and the Schubert second movement had an astonishing sotto voce ending that was pure Brendel. The fourth movement, with its ricocheting repeated notes, was a marvel, as was the music-box tinkling of the third movement's trio.
It was Mozart that opened the second half, two rather small pieces presented as delightful miniatures. The solemn Fantasia in C Minor, K. 476, is the better-known of the two, played with finesse and intelligent handling of the motivic fragmentation that seems to be Mozart looking forward to Beethoven. However, it was the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, that most impressed, a work heard much more rarely. It strikes me as a private piece, full of chromatic experimentation, a sort of harmonic notebook that records Mozart's fascination with the counterpoint and extended chromatic harmony found in the works of J. S. Bach.
We could not have asked for a better conclusion than one of Haydn's best comic piano pieces, the Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, composed during Haydn's trip to London in 1794. Here Brendel showed off his ability to play runs in thirds in his right hand, done not only accurately but with flair. To compensate for the shorter length of the second half, he took all of the repeats, to our delight. By the time that Brendel got to the rondo, after an exquisite slow movement, we were really having fun. The third movement is a textbook example of Haydn's wit, with its chippy theme that sometimes takes one or two false harmonic shifts to get started or conclude. With a twinkle in his eye, Alfred Brendel gave the joke its due, with none of the vulgarity that could come from too heavy of a musical guffaw. Haydn requires only a devilishly raised eyebrow, not a jab of the elbow in our sides.
Tuesdays could end worse than with Mozart-Mozart-Haydn, courtesy of Alfred Brendel, even if Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, may not touch quite as profoundly as the preceding Schubert. Then again, the way Brendel carved his turns in the music, combined with some of the wit of Haydn and the trademark sound of (often deceptive) effortlessness, it nearly does. This – as the following Mozart Rondo (A minor, K. 571) and Haydn sonata (Hob. XVI:50) – is the daily bread of Brendel’s – which is not to say he treats it as Bread & Butter work. In the faster passages over the rumble from the right hand, the ‘old man’ showed that he needn’t retire any time soon, after all. Suddenly his playing was all fleet, his fingers plenty nimble.
Let this be the first warning to the Mozart performer: piano playing, be it ever so faultless, must not be considered sufficient. Mozart's piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic. It is not the limitations of Mozart's pianoforte (which I refuse to accept) that point the way, but rather Mozart's dynamism, colourfulness, and expressiveness in operatic singing, in the orchestra, in ensembles of all kinds.Complete mastery was achieved during the Fantasia’s five little movements such that it can keep the young pianist Turks at bay for a good while. Especially since no one has ever succeeded with Mozart on account of technical ability alone; while few can match the (more important) musical spirit that is Brendel’s, the ingenuity of his touch. I, for one, should be happy to leave Hammerklavier sonatas or Petrouchka suites to others (a hand injury ruled those works out years ago) and hear similar… heck: identical programs from Brendel until he decides to end one of the most illustrious pianistic careers of our time, an impression the Rondo only further underscored. Particularly in Mozart, the Brendel of 75 years in flesh and blood outplayed the Brendel of any age on record. His recordings are always good – but nothing that I ever heard of his in Mozart had prepared me for the ease and easily discernable superiority of his playing.
A. Brendel - A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice - Music Sounded Out
Charles T. Downey, Alfred Brendel at the Kennedy Center (DCist, February 8)
Tim Page, Alfred Brendel's Transcendental Sonatas (Washington Post, February 9)