Alfred Brendel – 25 June

Bagatelles – from Opp.33, 119 & 126
Rondos in C and G, Op.51
Sonata in B flat, Op.22
Sonata in A, K331
Sonata in C, D840 (Relique)

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Knocking out a tune at home on one’s upright piano (’old Joanna’) is one thing, creating something intrinsic and memorable in short or long form is another. Beethoven didn’t lessen his grip when composing miniatures. The five Bagatelles that Alfred Brendel started his recital with illustrated the drawing-room musings of the ones collected under Opp.33 and 119 (inventively bursting out though they are) and the greater ambitions of the Op.126 set. The latter – powerful concentrates – seemed positively monumental (in statement rather than length) when interspersed with their earlier companions. The two Rondos made elegant envois, given, as ever with Brendel, with regard to the spirit behind the notes. That Brendel intended these pieces as a sequence was lost on part of the audience that was more interested in coughing – with no regard for silence or continuance; the soundbite mentality.

Brendel’s serene traversal of the Mozart was bewitching, not least in the opening variations in which he unhurriedly teased out all manner of augmentation and ornamentation – without point-making or exaggeration: it’s in the music. How to play the final ’Turkish Rondo’ after it’s been hijacked as encore and ’arrangement’ material? Straight!

Brendel’s programme seemed built around the idea of ’when is a sonata not a sonata’, the Beethoven entrée maybe a reminder that simple structures can be masks for unexpected depths. The ensuing sonatas, if unconventional in text-book terms, are significant in expression irrespective of formalisation, even if unfinished.

The ’relic’ that is the first two movements of Schubert’s C major crosses through tonal divides as emotions collide on a journey of light and dark, restlessness comforted by an optimistic chorale. Even by Schubert’s standards this is a volatile and questing creation; surprising too, nowhere more so than in the echo-like pianissimo annexure to the first movement.

Closing was Beethoven’s paradoxical B flat sonata. The opening toccata-like movement has Haydn stamped through it, the unexpected twists and turns are his legacy, one eagerly taken up by Beethoven and truculently delivered by Brendel who appreciates that the expressive largesse of the following ’Adagio’, while signalling later depths, is not yet of such magnitude. After a minuet, the finale is a Rondo – thus Brendel’s groundplan is made clear – Beethoven signs-off and moves on.

A Schubert encore, some German Dances, mere bagatelles – though with this composer such popular cuts are impregnated with subjectivity. ’Nothing is what it seems’ might have been Brendel’s message tonight. His clarifying of music’s mechanics, wheels within wheels, is as satisfying as the music himself. This is not so much core repertoire as music core to Brendel; he seems as smitten as ever he was with it, maybe more so given the subtlety of colour- mood- and dynamic-change that was abundant throughout. It’s what he finds in the music, rather than what he thinks should be there, that makes Brendel such a consummate and enduring musician.

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