Alfred Brendel, piano
Friday, February 22, 8pm, Symphony Hall, Boston (Celebrity Series of Boston)
Haydn, Variations in F minor, Hob: XVII/6
Mozart, Sonata in F major, K. 533/K. 494
Beethoven, Sonata in E flat major, “quasi una fantasia” Op. 27, no. 1
Schubert, Sonata in B flat major, D. 960
For his Boston farewell program, Alfred Brendel chose a selective cross-section of the repertoire he has cultivated through much of his career, and a fascinating selection it was, both in terms of Mr. Brendel’s taste and the inter-relationships between these mostly classical composers. [Click here for a review of his New York farewell with James Levine and the Met Orchestra.] There was no Schoenberg, no Schumann, and Liszt only as an encore. One felt that he had concentrated on the very marrow of his repertory. On the other hand, it came as a powerful discovery to experience the various forms—the overall shapes—of these four works within the compass of a single concert. Brendel has always been especially strong in comprehending and delineating classical structure and form, and now, at the very end of his public career, he appears to have distilled it to the utmost. Haydn’s rich F minor variations, which unfold over a melancholy walking figure in the bass, preceded the musically unusual, but traditionally constructed Mozart sonata, which concludes with an introspective rondo, also set at an ambling pace, cobbled from an earlier independent work. After this, Beethoven’s concentrated Sonata quasi una Fantasia, seemed like a revolutionary outburst, although all Beethoven actually did was to pare his movement-structures down to the point where they could function in support of an improvisatory style. After the break these three strikingly different, but equally terse classical works were followed by Schubert’s Romantic expansion of classical form to encompass a wealth of drawn-out melodies, harmonic invention, and subtle changes of mood.
Brendel has played all of these works many times, but now, in his final tour, his interpretations have evolved. They have evolved to an extraordinary level, in fact. Mr. Brendel, I’m sure, would the first to agree that there can be no definitive results in the performance of the best music. Interpretation is an endless exploration. However, in all four, I must say that I’ve never heard any musician, not even Brendel in earlier years, go nearly so far with them.
The Mozart sonata K. 533/494, for example, a work less often played, but one of his most appealing, begins at an easy pace with simple linear phrases, almost fragments, which lend themselves readily to contrapuntal treatment, and Mozart begins already to explore their harmonic possibilities in the exposition. In this respect the music is perhaps a little old-fashioned, a little Haydnesque, in fact, if even Mozart in his cockiness should ever have considered Haydn old-fashioned. Its simple, somewhat avuncular character belies its sophistication through the implications of what might been, if the thematic material, say, were developed into a full fugal treatment. The movement is in a way a dialogue between the learning of the older musical generation and the galanterie of the new. Through the course of the movement Mozart leads his genial subjects through a variety of harmonic and emotional transformations, as well as unexpected progressions, which lend the movement an undercurrent of anxiety and reflection, not to mention occasional flurries of counterpoint. Brendel, while intellectually aware of Mozart’s structures and the implications of his invention, was able to give it all the dignity and inwardness it deserves. He also allowed the expansive lyrical theme of the Andante to build almost like one of the vast themes of a Schubertian slow movement, while reflecting the psychological truth of Figaro’s more intimate moments. The final rondo, another movement which achieves surprising psychological complexity with deceptively simple motivic fragments, explores a gamut of timbres and colors. Brendel began with a brilliant sound, underscoring the path the music will follow, as it eventually finds its way to the lower registers of the keyboard in the coda. I have never heard a performance of this work which allowed its inner depths to speak so eloquently without violating its simplicity and decorum.
Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat major, “quasi una fantasia,” similarly begins with a relaxed, singing andante made up of simple responsive phrases. Gradually the music builds up to grand statement, accented by dissonant harmonies, which carries the audience far beyond the intimate mood of the first bars. Brendel, with his command of tone still as varied as ever, was able to lead the music from the more delicate moods to its climax with no harshness or exaggeration. His grasp of structure and color perfectly maintained the unity of the movement, while leaving him free to explore the extremes of Beethoven’s expression. He can as skillfully as ever bring out a singing line in a soft-toned middle register against brilliant figurations in the treble. But his awareness of form persisted through the ensuing movements, the rapidly flowing Allegro molto e vivace in the minor, the Adagio con espressione, which turns out to be a rather brief moment of deep reflection before the exuberant chase of the final allegro vivace, the obverse of the brooding second movement. Brendel maintained a sense of flow from the beginning to the end of the entire piece, showing us what a brilliantly unified and compact composition it is as never before. It seemed he had rethought the sonata from the foundations, and his performance seemed totally fresh.
If in this sonata Beethoven exercised his genius for condensation, Schubert was doing the opposite in his late piano sonatas. His themes are grand paratactic periods which seem to go on forever (And often we wish they really would!), and their harmonic meanderings are opportunities for Schubert’s imagination to seek out new implications and to explore the subtle moods drifting through his psyche like moving shadows. Alfred Brendel adopted these works into his repertory early on, when relatively few pianists were playing them. His example helped build a bridge back to Schnabel, one of their few exponents of the older generation, and encouraged younger musicians to take them up. As Schnabel said, Schubert’s late sonatas are “better than they can be performed.” Although there have been marvelous performances from Schnabel himself, Curzon, Kempff, Rudolf Serkin, and others, there always seems to be something left, which the musician has not quite reached—a mood, a color, a progression, never a virtuosic challenge—in every performance, including Brendel’s, although he achieved more than almost any in balancing the beauties of the passing moment against structure and Schenkerian form, even early in his career. It was basically Brendel’s immense powers of concentration which enable him to do this, just as it enabled us to share his concentration so intensely throughout this concert.
In Brendel’s performance of the Sonata in B flat it seemed that the character of this occasion as a final event pushed him even further in his understanding. Maintaining his control of the overall shape and structure of the sonata, he continued his exploration of rhythmic, harmonic, and coloristic details, always with full awareness of their place in the whole. Again, his ability to clarify textures by employing different touches and colors in overlying voices enabled him to achieve a marvellous clarification of the textures, as did his sense of timing the expressive gesture. None of the countless considerations at play in realizing this complex music inhibited Brendel’s expression. This was a deeply felt performance throughout, the slow movement quite unforgettable. His treatment of the final movement, with its varying, even hesitating pulse, and its daring transitions, was exemplary of Brendel’s progress. He brought out the greatest value and expressiveness everywhere, with a great range of dynamics and color, but always serving the unity of the movement.
Brendel’s recital was greeted with all the warmth and gratitude one might expect to build over his forty years as one of the most keenly appreciated figures in the Boston musical scene. He returned the sentiment with no less than three encores. First, a broad, deeply felt reading of the slow movement from J. S. Bach’s Italian Concerto, a truly noble reading, which continued the grave spirit of Schubert’s slow movement. The second was Liszt’s “Au lac de Wallenstadt,” from the first year of Les Années de Pélerinage. Brendel has served Liszt well over the years and done much to bring this work into the repertoire. He floated the barcarolle-like melody and rolling accompaniment as no other pianist can. His final encore, a direct, compact performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in G Flat Major, Op. 90, no. 3, a touching, but not exaggerated farewell, as one might well expect from our old friend and mentor.