Alfred Brendel 70th Birthday concert – 30th June

Three settings for baritone and orchestra of poems by Alfred Brendel (commissioned by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia Orchestra – world premiere)
Thomas Adès
Brahms II
Harrison Birtwistle
There is Something Between Us
Luciano Berio
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K271
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Richard Strauss
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Christopher Maltman, Roderick Williams & David Wilson-Johnson (baritones)
Alfred Brendel (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 30 June, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Alfred Brendel, doyen of pianists, and serious scholar and humorous poet too, is seventy. This was a fitting birthday concert, which not only had an upbeat programme of cheerful pieces, but also contained the world premieres of three songs, settings of Brendel’s poems, commissioned by Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia.

Three composers, three very different songs and, because of the indisposition of Matthias Goerne, three soloists too. Birtwistle’s There is Something Between Us dramatises the moment when two people see each other across a room and feel an affinity. Despite its fleeting, ephemeral subject matter, and the consciously fragmentary style in which it is composed, Birtwistle’s song has a stately rhythmic pulse, and conveyed a sense of repose and intimacy. Precise, delicate orchestral playing, especially in the woodwind, and sensitive singing from David Wilson-Johnson, gave the concert an exemplary start.

Thomas Adès’s Brahms II is described as an anti-homage, both poem and song dealing with Brahms’s ponderousness, his repetitive use of melodic and rhythmic motifs, his curmudgeonly temper, rather than the romantic heart that these characteristics concealed. The poem imagines that Brahms’s ghost enters a house, disturbs the occupants, plays the piano and smokes cigars. Ades’s song has elements of intentional pastiche – there are snatches of the falling thirds so common in Brahms (reminiscent particularly of the Intermezzo, Op.119/1) or the broken chords of the Capriccio, Op 116/7 – and also moments of unsubtle humour, such as the donkey-like noises that accompanied each entry of Brahms’s ghost. Though valiantly sung by Christopher Maltman, and played, it was perhaps the least successful of the three songs – it is hard to be humorous and reflect a lack of warmth.

Berio’s Alois sets a poem – Tritsch-Tratsch (Alois) – written about a group of people who listen to the Johann Strauss Polka in order to communicate with the Holy Ghost; Alois first discovered this medium. An appropriate conclusion to this commissioned birthday tribute, Berio’s song combined tradition and innovation, reminiscences of the Polka, and beautiful touches of marching pizzicato – with cheerful humour and an undercurrent of the surreal. Roderick Williams sustained an excellent lyrical line amidst the mordant orchestral comments.

Alfred Brendel has been immersed in Mozart all his life. His is the Mozart of mastery not mystery, of acceptance not aspiration; it is plain-speaking, unadorned, and sometimes matter-of-fact. It consistently refuses agogic pauses or any mannerisms; it lets the music speak entirely for itself and is almost ascetic. It is not an approach that best suits the Concerto No.9 (though its nickname – ’Jeunehomme’ – is a reference to its dedicatee, not to its character). Brendel has surely played the outer movements more lyrically than here – the first movement’s second subject was especially foursquare, much of the movement being resolutely earth-bound. The opening of the finale was especially self-effacing, lacking passion and attack – truly, this was an eminence grise playing the work of a barely-adult genius, one in the comfort of familiar territory, the other still discovering his powers. The sedate minuet episode was too static, though the bridge-passage and cadenza that followed were perfectly judged. In contrast to Brendel’s plain, measured style, Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia were lively and graceful; one looked to them to give the concerto its spring and dance, with especially witty violins in the finale.

The undoubted highlight of this concerto was the slow movement. Brendel has a perfect Mozart touch, the piano sings with enough delicacy to belie that it is a big, modern Steinway grand, yet with enough strength to project against the orchestra. The depth of passion Brendel can convey was apparent in his first entry. In the cadenza, Brendel was able to spin a story of complete enchantment.

Much the same might be said of the C major concerto. Brendel showed flashes of greatness, a perfect and idiomatic fluency with the genre, but also a resignation that lost the music some potential freshness. After a trenchant orchestral opening, one where the kinship with Le nozze di Figaro was nicely apparent, the soloist entered, again slightly disengaged. Some elements were once more wonderfully judged – the bridge-passage to the second subject, the balance between soloist and orchestra; others, such as the restrained cadenza (Brendel’s own), lacked a consistency of inspiration. The other two movements did come increasingly to life, the musical texture perfectly woven between piano and orchestra, especially when Brendel was playing accompanying figures, as, so to speak, the back of that texture. In the finale, Brendel played with increasing engagement – his passagework was lacy and effortless, the slow episode full of depth; by the final return of the rondo theme, he and the Philharmonia were perfectly bonded.

Till Eulenspiegel is an appropriately bucolic work for a birthday celebration. It received a neat, precise and stylish performance, one perhaps lacking the last ounce of fire and drama.

An uneven concert then, but one which confirmed the range of Brendel’s mind, as well as the canonical quality of his playing.

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