Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6 Mozart
Sonata in F, K533/494 Beethoven
Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1 (Quasi una fantasia) Schubert
Sonata in B flat, D960
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Alfred Brendel in New York
Wednesday, February 20, 2008 Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Reviewed by Nick Romeo
There is nothing dramatic about Alfred Brendel. Now in his late-70s, he walks with a slight stoop, bows politely, sits down at the piano and begins the recital almost before the audience has noticed. His playing also lacks any ostentatious drama. His tempos are reasonable, his rubato is tasteful and his body-language subdued.
Yet despite such modesty and understatement, he achieves some of the most perfectly calibrated performances. He began what may have been his last performance at Carnegie Hall with Haydn’s F minor Variations, music with a wide range of moods and styles, from boisterous major arpeggios to introspective minor scales. Brendel was able to capture the particular quality of each Variation while still elucidating the continuities between them. He also displayed his unerring gift for balancing multiple melodic lines.
In the first movement of Mozart’s F major Sonata he brought out the secondary melodies hidden in accompaniment and arpeggios and made clear how much is missing from a performance that only emphasizes conspicuous melodic material. The exquisite harmonic tension of the slow movement was beautifully rendered, and Brendel’s sparing use of the sustaining pedal allowed total clarity of sound. The contrapuntal nature of the finale was gracefully articulated and the music’s tender quality emphasized through hushed dynamics.
The first of Beethoven’s two Opus 27 ‘quasi una fantasia’ sonatas (the second is the ‘Moonlight’) was the only piece on the program not written close to the end of its composer’s life. Brendel captured the tranquil improvisatory mood of the first movement with subtle rubato and a leisurely tempo, which contrasted nicely with the brooding that begins the second movement, only to morph into an extravagantly stately slow movement. The conclusion was propelled forward with satisfying rhythmic energy and sudden dynamic shifts.
The large scale of the first movement of Schubert’s ultimate Sonata requires a broader concept. Brendel shaped the music in long phrases and used gradual and subtle dynamic changes to convey slight alterations in the harmonic texture. The slow movement was played with soulful urgency. With hardly a pause, the giddy joy of the scherzo began, only to slam into the stern octave that begins the finale in which Brendel brought out inner melodies and his broad shaping gave the impression of surveying a landscape from a high peak.
Three encores followed: the slow movement of Bach’s ‘Italian’ Concerto, ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ (from the Swiss leg of Liszt’s Years of Pilgramage), and Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat. All were beautifully played, but the Bach had an astounding depth of feeling that distilled a lifetime of music. If this does prove to be Brendel’s last recital at Carnegie – he is currently on a ‘farewell tour’ – this was a wonderful conclusion.