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One Encounter: Thank You and Goodbye

By (March 1, 2008) No Comment

Alfred Brendel at Carnegie Hall, February 20, 2008

I’m something of a news junkie. And if you’re one as well and prone to long hours of internet surfing, you know that around midnight Eastern Standard Time, the morning editions of the British papers will post tomorrow’s headlines. And so in November of last year, during one of those late-evening marathons, I chanced upon the morning edition of the Guardian newspaper. One of the headlines read,

Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career

The first sentence: “Alfred Brendel, arguably Britain’s greatest living pianist and adored by classical music lovers for his rigorous yet witty and emotionally complex playing, is to retire from performance.” As a lover of his records, I was taken aback. It wasn’t that over-cautious “arguably,” or even that he was retiring. He is 77 years old, has other pursuits—Brendel’s essays on music and performace are well worth your time—and his career has spanned six decades.

What upset me was that I’d only seen him play once, and then only in a portion of an evening’s program. In late March, earlier that year, I saw him in Mozart’s G Major concerto with James Levine and the Boston Symphony, but it left me wanting. Wanting not for any deficiency on Brendel’s part, but because it had only been a small portion of a decidedly front-loaded concert. The concerto had been preceded by Mozart’s wonderful G minor Symphony (the first one, his first truly great symphony), but the second half was underwhelming. It began with a bland set of variations by Schuller, which I’d never heard before and don’t care to hear again, and ended with the second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé; excellent music but not of a par with the Mozart. So the evening had climaxed before intermission, and the high I’d gotten from listening to a great symphony and a great pianist had ebbed by the time I left.

Anxious for another chance, I called my mother when I finished the article. She is a piano player and the person who introduced me to classical music. It took only a small amount of persuasion to get her to put two tickets to a solo recital on her credit card (my own is perenially five dollars under the limit), and in minutes we had tickets to Alfred Brendel’s final concert at Carnegie Hall, all conducted while potential concert-goers in America were sleeping.

That Alfred Brendel is an important or influential pianist is beyond dispute. He has, in the spirit of Schnabel, contributed immeasurably to the interpretation of the Austro-German masters, and has done more to shore up Liszt’s reputation than any pianist since Vladimir Horowitz. The staples of his repertory are Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and, less so recently, Liszt. The sound world of Chopin would take him too far afield (though his early recording of the Polonaises is interesting), Rachmaninov is too emotional and Prokofiev is “unpleasant.” He plays little newer music, aside from some Schoenberg. “You see,” he said in a March 2006 interview in Gramaphone, “it is a matter of time and personal choice. Even when I was in my twenties I had a goal: to focus primarily on music’s greatest masterpieces, seeing them as an endless source of adventure and enlightenment.”

Where he elicits controversy is not in his choice of material, but his view of interpretation. Reviewers have often gleaned from Brendel’s intellectualism a rather broadly painted picture of his music making. There has been, in the critical if not the public world, a persistent ambivalence about the aesthetic value of his approach. It is said that his performances are pedantic and structure-concious, his tone too dry and clangorous. He is lumped in with exemplars of the “modern” style, which is, in the words of Harold Schonberg, “objective, literal, severe, impersonal, dedicated to an acurate blueprint of the architecture of the music. Color, charm and emotion mean much less than a stringent exposition of the form and relationships of a piece.” Schonberg, like many other old-guard critics, pines after the romantic pianist-as-hero, a creature that has slowly faded away with the passing of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and the retreat of Martha Argerich into collaborative work. But Brendel doesn’t belong in the same category as the boring competition winners in favor today.

His massive discography bears this out, and shows the gradual evolution of an artist who got better with age. Listen to his Beethoven, for which he is probably most famous. He recorded the complete sonatas three times, more often than anyone else. While he was always concerned with structure and the intentions of the composer, Brendel’s first Beethoven cycle for the Vox label (where he gained his fame) in the 1960s is full of the very drive and emotion his critics say he doesn’t have, while the second cycle for Phillips is more cautious, more concerned with the linear argument of the music (even here there are absolute gems; his rendering of the E minor sonata is the finest I’ve ever heard). There were some issues; he could be a bit clangy and a bit too restrained at times. But his final cycle, also for Phillips and dating from the mid-90s, systhesizes the brio of the first set and the narrative drive of the second with a bigger and more colorful tone. It is, in the words of Richard Osborne, “remarkable for the scale of the playing, its rhetorical daring and for the superb quality of the sound.” It ranks among the greatest traversals of this Mt. Everest of piano literature.

The same holds true for his Mozart concertos with Neville Marriner, and Brendel is fascinating, if not always ideal, in the sonatas. In Schubert, especially with the Impromtus, he often achieves the marriage of form and sound that he seems to be striving for. Compare the emotion on display in the Klavierstucke with say, the subdued efforts of Maurizio Pollini, human metronome. As he has with Liszt, Brendel has done much to popularize Haydn: the pianist’s multifaceted readings make him perhaps the best living exponent of this underplayed music.

It is also worth pointing out to the potential record buyer that Brendel’s many live discs are often better than their studio-bound counterparts. The pianist himself has something of an explanation for this:

Why, if I may believe my own experience as a listener, does an impressive concert tend to leave stonger traces than a record? Because the listener, no less than the player, has had a physical experience, not only hearing the performance but breathing in it, contributing to it by his presence and sharing his enthusiasm with many others. The listener encounters the composer together with the performer and the rest of the audience in one place and at one time.

That atmosphere, that communion (if you’ll pardon the phrase), is all the more tangible if that one time is the last.

At seven thirty on the night of Bredenl’s final recital in New York, after a large meal and three cups of coffee at a cafe catty-corner from the unassuming Carnegie Hall, my mother and I made our way to the concert. As we walked through the crowd outside the entrance, we passed a dozen or so well-dressed men and women, some holding pieces of cardboard, some shouting. One particularly distressed man with pleading eyes looked at me and held up his sign in lieu of speaking: “I would like to purchase 1 ticket,” it said. Hundreds crowded into the lobby, cordoned off for some reason from the rest of the hall. When the ushers parted, the crowd, abuzz with anticipation I assume, jostled pointlessly toward the stairs, and we went to our seats. Wonderful seats too, in the middle of the orchestra section, just left of center. As luck would have it, the person who had the seat in front of me never showed up, and I had a clear line of sight to the keyboard.

I thumbed through the playbill as we waited, the first one I’ve ever seen that wasn’t filled entirely by luxury advertisements. It contained tribute to the pianist, excellent notes on the program, and a list of all the nearly eighty concerts Brendel had given at Carnegie Hall, and the pieces he played. They finally closed the door to the auditorium, and the audience, which spilled over onto the stage seats, was packed.

At ten past eight, Brendel walked out to hearty applause. As he was to do all evening, he cut it short by sitting down at the piano and playing as soon as the clapping ended.

He began with Haydn’s melancholy, almost stately variations in F minor. The piece seemed to float along; the sadness punctuated with a few playful righthand figurations, then underscored by somber crossings of the right hand over the left. Here and there a few louder outbursts, but in Brendel’s hands the piece restrained itself until a forte outburst near the end, before returning again to the opening motive.

In Mozart’s sonata in F Major, K533, he deftly negotiated the fleet passagework of the first movement. The polyphony of the opening movement (what was Glen Gould thinking?) demonstrated Brendel’s wondrous ability to properly weight each hand; the back and forth of treble and bass was sheer delight. He sang the opening of the middle movement beautifully, though his tone showed a bit of that harshness in the louder central passages. A return to the opening theme righted things for the finale. Mozart had written the rather innocent closing rondo two years before the first two movements, but substantial revision made it fit more comfortably with the rest of the sonata, and Brendel played up these links effectively in a slightly slower than usual account.

The first half of the concert closed with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, less-known companion to the “Moonlight.” Brendel succeeded admirably in uniting the disparate movements of this underplayed little masterpiece. The playful, improvisatory beginning laid the groundwork for a fast and dramatic second movement, played without a hint of harshness in the loud passages. A gentle and thoughtful adagio led into a boistrous finale, which, a few inconsequential finger slips aside, led the crowd to rapturous applause.

My mother and I raved at each other for a little while, and I headed off for refreshment. Twenty minutes in line and twenty dollars got me two mediocre glasses of champagne, and I was ready for the second half of the program, entirely devoted to Schubert’s final piano sonata in B-flat. I can’t express to you how wonderful this performance was. I must confess to sometimes having trouble with Schubert’s “heavenly length,” but Brendel held it together. Here he showed the full breadth of his tone coloring in a placid, heavenly opening theme punctuated by brooding low register trills. Pianists often have difficulty making sense of Schubert’s thematic modulations here, but it all moved forward with a sense of inevitability. Brendel was haunting in the andante, one of the great slow movements, with the almost hopeful central section rising gracefully out of and back into the pathos surrounding it. The pianist arched his brow at the coughing fits that kept popping up whenever he finished a movement, and the audience, well-behaved throughout the night, gave a quiet chuckle. Sunlight returned in the delighful scherzo and continued to the final notes of the finale. My eyes were closed for most of the sonata, and for forty minutes I was in another world.

Thunderous applause greeted the final notes, and Brendel, a smile on his face, was called out for three encores: the slow movement from Bach’s “Italian concerto,” Liszt’s “Au Lac de Wallerstadt,” and Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, a familiar and fitting end to a historic concert. He walked off stage for the final time and we left. Talking to my mother but not really feeling like I was talking, I left in a daze, and we strolled twenty blocks uptown to our parking spot. It was cold and we had planned to take the train, but it now seemed like that would sully the experience.

His playing that night represented the best of what Brendel is capable of: the systhesis of a piece’s architecture with a beautiful sound world in an utterly convincing performance. That’s why he is a master, and we can all be happy that he didn’t choose to go on as his ability faded away. Alfred Brendel has retired at the height of his powers, and I’m grateful I had the chance to see it.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.

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