It was time to say good-bye to Alfred Brendel, and every seat at Strathmore was filled for the Austrian pianist's WPAS-sponsored recital on Monday night. The audience for Brendel's last recital in the United States, before he tours Europe one last time and gives his farewell performance in Vienna, included just about every music critic in the Potomac region, adding to the sense of a grand event, a moment of history. We had gathered to give tribute to an astounding career of sixty years at the piano, to the mark the man has left on the fairly narrow repertoire that was his signature. Brendel devoted himself not to Apollo or to Dionysus, but to the cult of eloquent sound. A Brendel performance rarely says too much but is committed to and achieves, especially in Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, the elegant expression of every detail in the score. With gentlemanly restraint, Brendel put a stop to any thought of a prolonged recognition of the moment, by bowing politely and sitting down on the bench without further ado.
In Recital (live/radio recordings)
Haydn sonatas (1)
Haydn sonatas (2)
On the basis of Brendel's discography and his 2006 Strathmore recital, one wished for more Haydn in this valedictory concert. We had to settle for one fairly brief but welcome Haydn work, the F minor variations (Hob. XVII:6), a piece I learned first by playing it on my senior undergraduate recital. In a moment of serendipity just before the concert, out of my well-marked score dropped three sheets of paper containing the comments of the jury that assessed my performance on that recital. Things that those gifted (and, truly, kind-hearted) professors wrote, lo those many years ago, meant much more to me listening to Alfred Brendel play the piece this week, with more than a few years passed having changed my outlook on life.
Brendel's Andante tempo was not leisurely but neither was it agitated (one juror criticized my playing as at "a nervous tempo, not too fast, just slightly unsettled"), allowing the arpeggio flourishes and trills of the first variation to flutter brilliantly but still be heard (another juror said my ornaments were "a little hysterical rather than eloquent"). As he has done with breathtaking consistency throughout his career, Brendel etched every detail into the sound but kept it simple (whereas with an overemphasis on dynamic contrasts, I had "placed this work as a kind of futuristic 19th-century Haydn"). Most of all, Brendel's playing showed how sometimes less is more and that motion and force can both be modulated to give greater contour to the musical shape ("Careful climax can be broader. Make it last! Lay back!").
Tim Smith, Brendel's farewell is bittersweet (Baltimore Sun, March 19)
T. L. Ponick, Piano's bel canto note (Washington Times, March 19)
Anne Midgette, Autumn Sonata (Washington Post, March 18)
Tim Smith, Alfred Brendel soars in last U.S. performance (Critical Mass, March 18)
Andrew Patner, Brendel plays classics as composers intended (Chicago Sun-Times, March 11) -- longer version at Andrew's new blog
John van Rhein, Alfred Brendel dominates Orchestra Hall at final Chicago concert (Chicago Tribune, March 11)
Alex Ross, Alfred the Great (The New Yorker, March 10)
Jeremy Eichler, Pianist Brendel bids a serenely Brendellian farewell (Boston Globe, February 25)
Fred Kirshnit, Brendel's Goodbye (New York Sun, February 21)
Anthony Tommasini, A Pianist Bids Farewell With Schubertian Grace (New York Times, February 22)
For the second part of the Viennese classical triptych, it was Mozart's F major sonata, K. 533/494. Brendel's fingers are still impressively agile at age 77, even if there were a few sticky places. What Brendel can make you do is love a theme so much that its return, voiced with only a slight adjustment of dynamic or tempo, can feel like a warm embrace, as happened as the unyielding development melted into the recapitulation of the first movement. For some, the music box character of the rondo may have been too precious, but it seemed to follow the setting of the final section of the second movement as a recollection of a delicious memory.
Not all of Beethoven's sonatas were served best by Brendel, but op. 27, no. 1, seemed perfectly suited to the same gentle, hushed approach taken in the Mozart. It was, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the recording recently released by András Schiff, less about the edges and corners and more about the curves and surfaces. In spite of the asthmatic ward level of coughing, which even caused Brendel to turn and shake his head at the audience in the third movement, this was polished Beethoven. The fourth movement, especially, showed an unassuming virtuosity, with all of the register-shifting leaps played exactly in tempo with no need to show off, just like neighboring sections of an orchestra merely answering one another back and forth.
As a way of contemplating one's own end, few statements could be more significant than Brendel concluding this recital with Schubert's final sonata (B-flat major, D. 960), composed "in the proximity of death," as Claudio Arrau once put it. In the first movement, the rumbling trill that undermines each statement of the peaceful first theme was no more than a passing, nervous clutching of the heart, while the repeated notes that tick by steadily had a restless sound, not drawing attention to the motif but always there like an anxious heartbeat. That main theme, a balm to soothe a fearful heart, sounded with ethereal yearning toward the end of the development, always troubled by the ominous trills, as we waited for the recapitulation.
Pianist Alfred Brendel at the grave of Franz Schubert
Brendel's performance drew attention subtly to Schubert's use of repeated-note motifs in the other three movements, just not as consistently as in the first movement. In the Andante sostenuto second movement, steeped in a muted sense of tragedy, the left hand figure danced around the melody like drops of water. The scherzo was a brilliant, gracious dance, its trio neurotically troubled again by chromatic undertones, like memories of the ominous trill. The fourth movement was gathered around the held tones that strike out of the texture, like a gasp of awarenes. This was a performance noteworthy by its understatement, although Brendel's tone was forceful where it needed to be.
Schubert, opening of D. 960, Alfred Brendel, 1988
Three carefully chosen encores drew our attention to perhaps less-explored parts of Brendel's legacy, beginning with the Andante second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971 (recently re-released by Phillips) and then surpassed by Liszt's Au Lac de Wallenstadt (from Années de pèlerinage, of which there is a DVD available). Best of all was a selection from the D. 935 set of Schubert's impromptus (A-flat major, op. 142, no. 2). If Brendel chooses to play this piece, with its main theme of an Allegretto waltz, at his final concert in Vienna, there will not be a dry eye in the room.
The next concert sponsored by WPAS will feature the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (April 1, 8 pm), with Piotr Anderszewski playing the first Beethoven piano concerto.