Adrian & Alfred Brendel

Sonata for piano and cello in G minor, Op.5/2
Sonata for piano and cello in C, Op.102/1
Variations on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Die Zauberflöte, Op.66
Sonata for piano and cello in A, Op.69

Adrian Brendel (cello) &
Alfred Brendel (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 June, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

A Beethoven evening chez Brendel. In this tantalising recital by Brendel father and son, given a repeat performance, the lace curtains of Alfred Brendel’s Hampstead drawing room seemed drawn back, with us the audience sitting in the Big Brother Viewing Room. In this context, this is an upmarket household brimming with quality musicianship; being Hampstead, it is also a verbal household in which wit, repartee and intellectual badinage have an important place. Sometimes the occupants communicate in short grunts, which can be distracting. Last but not least, Hampstead seems a surprisingly egalitarian place, at least on the surface.

Beethoven’s five sonatas for piano and cello may not be his greatest music; sometimes their domesticity can be overwhelmed by larger-than-life performances. Not here though. Alfred Brendel is undoubtedly one of our finest Beethoven pianists – some would say the greatest – whereas Adrian is as yet relatively unknown. There was no mismatch, however.

The Brendels brought to this music a distillation of their extensive private study. No quarter is given – for instance, Brendel senior not slackening allegros to make life easier for the cellist; and, with the piano-lid fully open, it’s just as well that Adrian produces a robust and solid sound, otherwise he would have been overwhelmed. These are though duo sonatas.

The second half was extraordinarily satisfying, the big mid-period A major sonata elegantly framed by two sets of Beethoven’s variations on Magic Flute tunes. The one on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” was the entirely apposite encore. Both gave the Brendels full rein to have fun, both sets wittily despatched. The penultimate “Bei Männern…” variation touched on much deeper things. The world stood still for a moment.

The A major’s opening cello solo flowered and was immediately echoed by the piano’s open octaves, sounding from Brendel amazingly forward-looking. The succeeding ’Allegro ma non tanto’ was given with propulsive forward energy despite the moderate tempo. What the Brendels particularly conveyed was a sense of constantly shifting perspectives, a landscape viewed from different angles. The Scherzo was taken headlong, swallowed in one gulp, although not so fast as to prevent Brendel senior varying his touch for the movement’s final reprise in the subtlest of ways, a moment of pure genius, creating an illusion of the music spinning out of earshot before the throwaway ending. The ’Adagio cantabile’ starts with one of those sublimely elevated Beethoven themes, leading one to anticipate a great slow movement, only for this to be rapidly abandoned to the final ’Allegro vivace’, here given with dynamism and humour.

Given the cello’s songful character, Beethoven’s reluctance to write extended slow movements in the early sonatas is a matter of some puzzlement. It may have had to do with the lack of carrying power of gut strings. Perhaps the character of the quick music is so volatile and quirky that lyricism is accommodated within the abrupt switches of mood. This was especially noticeable in the mercurial realisation of the opening paragraphs of the C major sonata, an avowedly experimental work that stands on the threshold of Beethoven’s last period. Here it received an appropriately exploratory rendition: high-octane energy in the outer sections, deeply questing in the second slow section, with all roads thereafter leading to the final joyous fugue.

To begin the evening, the G minor’s imposing ’Adagio sostenuto’ introduction was given with just the right dignity and concentration. The Rondo finale bubbled along with almost Schubertian discursiveness. Adrian Brendel’s playing, the odd bow-slip apart, is quite on a level musically to stand alongside that of his father. One looks forward to the concluding instalment of this journey through Beethoven’s music for cello and piano – June 11 and 12 next year. Book now would be my advice.

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