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99 and 44/100 Percent Pure

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/22/2004 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia K396, Sonatas K 281 & 282
Franz Schubert: Three Pieces, D946
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 30

Alfred Brendel (piano)

No matter which side of the polyhedrous period performance argument on which one hangs their headphones, it is necessary perforce to have a great respect for Alfred Brendel. Although Horowitz might have been described by overzealous critics as a poet of the keyboard, Mr. Brendel is an actual poet, who also happens to play the piano. Scholarly and authoritative, he is the perfect example of one of the facets of the authenticity diamond, the dean of the “big piano, little voice” school. For him, the sustaining pedal is as useless an option as a back seat cup holder.

True to form, Brendel presented a no-nonsense first half of Mozart without vibrato, dynamics or emotion standing in the way of direct communication between composer and audience. He is in many ways but a surrogate, not even the messenger but rather the steed that carries the messenger. Admirable as this may be, such extreme self-effacement could easily be considered vanity by less forgiving listeners than this reviewer. Indeed, there was much grumbling at the interval from patrons used to more expansive renditions. Brendel’s dispassionate approach may also be a bit passé: there were literally no other members of the familiar critical press in attendance at Carnegie, although there were dozens of serious piano students, including Emanuel Ax.

Dipping a toe into the 19th century, our cicerone loosened up just a tad for the three Schubert pieces, significantly never intended by their composer to be performed as a set, but juxtaposed by a card-carrying Romantic, Johannes Brahms, who recognized their deeper core value of emotional intensity. The middle work, the E Flat Major, is one of those incredible moments of Schubertiana that discover one spine-chilling interval and build an entire world around it. Here Mr. Brendel was thankfully detached, allowing the unusual harmony to stand alone in all of its pristine glory. Parenthetically, the pianist was also much more energetic and accurate than at his recital here two seasons ago. He is now touring about with his son, cellist Adrian Brendel (they are performing at the Y in a couple of days) and this perhaps is the source of his exultant rejuvenation. The Op. 109 of Beethoven can certainly stand a clean and polished reading, the metaphysical force of such magnitude that no ornamentation is necessary. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the Brendel version is thought provoking in the extreme. Perhaps this style of play is on the wane at present, but it may indeed be due for a comeback. It certainly is the low carb version.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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