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The Poet Speaks

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/20/2008 -  
Franz Josef Haydn: Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in F Major, K. 533/K. 494
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 13 “quasi una fantasia”, Opus 27, No.1
Franz Schubert: Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960

Alfred Brendel (Piano)

Alfred Brendel’s concert last night did contain one sad note. That note, in the program, stated that this was Mr. Brendel’s “final” concert at Carnegie Hall, after 35 years of concerts. Fortunately, that sour note had a bright codicil, about working on “collaborative projects” in the future. Which means that, like Vladimir Horowitz, Leopold Stokowski and Judy Garland, the 78-year-old artist will return again and again.

That was obviously what the almost-sellout crowd demanded and was rewarded for at this “final” concert, with four composers who had been his stalwarts during 60 years of concretizing. Added to this, was the complete second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto as one of the three encores.

One thing for certain is that Mr. Brendel has only enriched his favorite music as he has matured. So, the works he chose showed these composers at their very peak.

The Haydn Variations have always been a favorite, and Mr. Brendel played the piece with such freshness that Haydn “surprises”—the sudden syncopations, the changes of key and mood—were less dominating than Mr. Brendel’s organic understanding. The major and minor themes echoed against each other (quite elegantly, of course), while bass and treble questioned and answered. The irregular and sometimes bumptious tunes were controlled, for Mr. Brendel is too civilized to let a few "Haydnesque" antics get in the way of good music.

Mozart’s compound sonata (made of two movements and a rondo written two years before) was a different story. This was Mozart of the most complex polyphony, yet the greatest feeling, and Mr. Brendel again showed his supreme discipline and polish. The pianist once wrote that “Feeling is the alpha and omega of a musician”, yet this feeling was in the architecture rather than the emotion. But, to paraphrase the poet on Pythagoras, “Architecture can be beauty bare.”

The final two works showed a different side of Mr. Brendel. Beethoven’s "other" fantasia-sonata written just before Moonlight, is a jaunty piece, and was played with reserved but unmistakable ebullience by the artist. The last movement was more like Beethoven the improviser, yet Mr. Brendel crossed those changes of mood with immaculate taste.

The second half was devoted (and “devoted” is the only word possible) to Schubert’s final Sonata. It is the culmination of Schubert’s feeling, lyricism, and invention, and no simple words can describe the serene changes of key and sheer beauty. That heavenly first movement was underplayed, the piano-pianissimo trills and the mysterious sounds in the low bass as opaque as poetry.

But it was the slow movement where Mr. Brendel was mesmerizing. One could imagine Mahler having written this movement, with nature/metaphysical descriptions for the two moods. Yet, by playing it with simple literal tenderness, the tragedy of the main sections, and the Arcadian gentleness of the center, blended into what Mr. Brendel expressed best: balance, decorum, intelligence and poetry.

Harry Rolnick



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