Friday 27 June 2008

Alfred Brendel's final London recital, 27 June 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6
Mozart – Sonata in F major, KV 533/494
Beethoven – Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, ‘Quasi una fantasia,’ Op. 27 no.1
Schubert – Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Alfred Brendel’s final recital in the city that has become his adopted home could never have failed to be a very special occasion. The warmth of his reception and of the almost innumerable standing ovations at the end attested to that. There is no need to worry oneself asking how this would have stood up to scrutiny had it been ‘just another recital’; it was not. Yet, circumstances notwithstanding, Brendel delivered piano-playing and musicianship of the highest order – that is, at a level quite different from the relatively disappointing performance of Mozart’s C minor piano concerto with the LSO and Bernard Haitink earlier in the month.

Then I had felt that Brendel only really came into his own in his encore; here, we were treated to a fine account of Haydn’s F minor variations, which captivated from the supremely well-judged rise and fall of the opening theme (and its repetitions) onwards. The use Brendel made of its dotted rhythms in itself provided a master-class in attention to detail: not merely articulated for their own sake, but also providing subtle rhythmic impetus and highlighting motivic connections. In this, he was aided by impeccable control of line, the sole upset being a nervous-sounding slip during the second half of the first theme. Rubato was more present than one might have expected, yet never drew attention to itself, serving instead a greater strategic plan. The maggiore theme – this is a masterly set of double variations, in F minor and F major – brought an exquisite grace, especially in Brendel’s handling of its characteristic septuplets, and also a sense, which penetrates to the very heart of the Classical style, that oscillation between tonic minor and major presents two sides of the same tonal coin. To that end, pathos was not overdone in the return to F minor for the syncopated first variation; it nevertheless shone through with dignity. The trills of the first major variation told melodically: there was no question of Haydn’s variation form being merely ornamental. When in the left hand, these trills formed a strong foundation for the right hand’s developmental flights of fancy. Likewise, the arpeggios at the close of the second minor variation were given their true melodic worth rather than being treated simply as figuration. Brendel’s wonderfully-judged fermata when the repeated minor theme broke off to introduce something quite new, in the guise of the variations’ finale, pointed to an unerring sense of dramatic timing. He similarly brought a heart-stopping moment of stasis immediately before the noble coda.

In the Mozart sonata, the opening Allegro had a fast tempo indeed: faster than I might have preferred, although I admit that it never sounded merely rushed. There was also a commendable flexibility when required. Brendel imparted a duly Bachian quality to Mozart’s decidedly ‘late’ counterpart, without sacrifice to what turned out to be the complementary rather than opposing demands of the Mozartian cantilena. It was clear, moreover, that Brendel was able and willing to relate the style of the piano sonatas to the rest of Mozart’s œuvre. There was a true sense of orchestral entry to the left-hand chords (beginning in bar 82) underlying the triplet runs. During the exposition repeat, I felt that we had entered into the world of opera, through Brendel’s sharp characterisation of the themes and their presentation. The left hand’s presentation of the first subject announced the arrival on stage of a buffo baritone somewhere between Figaro and the Count. And the world of the concerto returned with the opening of the development section, reminding us that Mozart’s style is always dramatic. That difficult final chord of the development was disappointingly anti-climatic, but the fresh impetus of the recapitulation – no mere repetition here – more or less straight away made one forget such a niggardly complaint. The counterpoint was integral to the dramatic flow, never sounding ‘additional’. A wonderful sense of exaltation in the closing triplet arpeggios brought the movement to a close. The Andante, quite rightly, brought not repose but emotional intensification in a movement of extreme chromaticism. (A watch alarm irritated but could not unduly disrupt.) Relative relaxation had to wait for the brief moment of the opening of the second subject. The exposition repeat had considerable ornamentation lavished upon it, including some entirely convincing syncopation. If one is going to do this, this is how it should be done. Duly vocal leaps at the conclusions of the exposition and recapitulation reminded us once again of the proximity to Mozartian opera, as did the sense of yearning in the return of the second subject. In between, however, Mozart – and Brendel – had taken us, during the development, very close to Tristan, with even greater harmonic instability, and yet expert hands leading us towards the climax. With the recapitulation, we could relax somewhat, although the sometimes heavy – yet never unduly so – ornamentation provided its own intensification. The rondo finale began in contrasting fashion with a telling suggestion of the music box. Semiquavers flowed, as Mozart demanded, ‘like oil’, yet with a winningly impish quality too. Heightened drama came with the turn towards the relative minor. Syncopation was truly made to tell through Brendel’s underlying rhythmic security. In the lead up to the cadenza, we were once again – unsurprisingly – reminded of Mozart’s piano concertos. The control and mastery of both composer and pianist was then displayed in its flowering of mock-fugal counterpoint. After this, the clarity and grace of the deceptively straightforward coda – extremely difficult to voice satisfactorily – rounded off a very fine performance.

The expertly handled rise and fall of the left-hand phrases in the opening theme of the Beethoven sonata pointed to the connection with Haydn. Even the ringing of a mobile telephone – let us hope that the culprit will have something very nasty in store during the after-life – could not detract from what was once again a supreme display of thoughtful musicianship. Climaxes were not merely exciting but, more importantly, rapt in their sublimity. Brendel proved himself alert to the subtitle, ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’, for the C major outburst imparted a sense of (controlled) improvisatory fantasy and, indeed, of formal boundaries already beginning to break down: there is much that is ‘late’ in earlier Beethoven. A fierce passion, allied to unerring and rhythmic formal control, characterised the second movement, leading us surely into the sublimity of the Adagio con espressione. Once again, the rise and fall of phrases was expertly judged, as were their integration into the formal whole and harmonic momentum. The tension thereby produced became almost unbearable until the music sounded transmuted by trills, which in turn led us into the fourth movement. This brought a perfect sense of release, and also gave voice to Beethoven’s and Brendel’s twin senses of humour, not least in the voicing of the counterpoint. Sterner moments lacked nothing, however, in necessary weight. The arpeggios were here as exultant as they had been in Mozart, although they sounded, quite rightly, more complex in Beethoven’s fuller textures. The return of the sonata’s opening theme marked a return to that earlier rapt sublimity – and also a sense of true homecoming, the opening of the fourth movement now understood in retrospect as a false culmination. The Presto coda rounded things off perfectly. Almost everything had been said; now everything had.

With Schubert, we came to the second half – and to the final member of Brendel’s quartet of Classical gods. Schubert’s final sonata could not fail to impart something of a valedictory quality to proceedings, but Brendel was determined that this quality should not be exaggerated. The opening Molto moderato was certainly not fast; nor, however, was it an existentially devastated, overly-laden-with-pathos counterpart to Winterreise. Instead, it emerged as remarkably clear-sighted. There was stoical vehemence in the forte restatement of the first subject, as we were led into the second, but there was nothing hysterical to it. It was left to the second subject, in F-sharp minor, to impart a sense of the tragic, albeit without a hint of anything maudlin. The development section brought with its triplets an appropriate sense of strenuous working out. We had a sure guide, however, to its wondrous harmonic explorations, the pianist’s rhythmic command as crucial in this respect as his tonal understanding. The left hand trills were clear and yet brooding, their positioning truly made to tell. And the second subject emerged defiant in the recapitulation, before yielding to what Brendel, quoted in the programme note, has aptly described as a feeling of being ‘blissfully fatigued’. ‘Clear-sighted melancholy’ (Brendel again) characterised the second movement. There was, however, also a sense of something very close to the unfolding of tragedy, which emerged through that very quality Brendel cited. Brendel refused to linger, always heading forwards. The central section was songlike, yet it sang defiantly. That most miraculous of Schubert’s modulations, from C-sharp minor to C major, heralded, as it must, the opening up of a new world before our ears – and perhaps our eyes too – unbearably tantalising in the brevity of its epiphany. We were thereby, however, enabled to reach some sort of peace in the justly equivocal C-sharp major conclusion. In the programme notes, Nick Breckenfield characterised the Scherzo as reintroducing ‘the hustle and bustle of daily life’. This was certainly how it felt on this occasion. One could almost see, let alone hear, the operatic chorus of maids chattering and attending to their business, by way of contrast to the previous dramatic and metaphysical revelations. Brendel’s description – ‘soaring and playful’ – was equally true of his reading. Yet I am sure that I heard – perhaps even despite his efforts – darker undercurrents, which simply could not be banished. This is a weak B-flat major, not unlike that of Mozart’s final piano concerto. The Trio was ‘muffled and obstinate’ (Brendel), the pianist’s handling of its sforzandi reinforcing its strange obstinacy. The finale, unlike the other movements, followed without a break. That defiance on which I remarked earlier was once again present, yet so too was a rare beauty through grace: a word, which may here be appropriately understood in a theological as well as a secular sense. I shall quote in full Brendel’s summary: ‘“Fatigue and resignation”? No, rather: graceful resolution, playful vigour. Ironic twinkle; generous singing line; stubborn pugnacity. Surmounting of C minor fixation after the ninth assault: precious moment of self-abandonment. Assertive coda.’ This Schubert, then, would not go quietly into the night. Yet there was also, as there had to be, a profound ambivalence, a reluctance or indeed inability to sound a note of Beethovenian triumph. Schubert and Brendel here looked into the abyss and somehow also managed to console. And then, in the coda, they laughed too.

In normal circumstances, such would have been quite enough. Here, however, we were treated to no fewer than three encores. The slow movement from the Italian Concerto reminded us of Brendel’s all-too-infrequently credentials as a Bachian. In its unending melody and its unrelenting tragic nobility, it was as if Edwin Fischer were once again amongst us. Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt was beautifully controlled, reminding us of the sterling efforts Brendel has made throughout his career to restore Liszt to the position that is rightly his. It was a hymn to the Romantic conception of Nature, whose final note faded as exquisitely as the previous voice-leading. To conclude, however, we simply had to hear Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, and we did. The bass undercurrents reminded us of the trills in the first movement of the Schubert sonata. Romantic passion was present in the central section, yet it was not unbridled and was all the stronger for not being so. The return of the opening material was ineffably moving. There was no need to attempt to dissociate performance from occasion, for the two were as one. So too were composer and pianist.