Alfred Brendel – Final London Recital

Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6
Sonata in F, K533/494
Sonata in E flat, Op.27/1 (Quasi una fantasia)
Sonata in B flat, D960

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 27 June, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Alfred Brendel in Feb 2008. Photograph: Jennifer TaylorThis was a special event: Alfred Brendel’s final recital in London (but not his last appearance here), part of a farewell tour that ends this December in Vienna. Brendel has reached such star status and draws much affection from a legion of devotees; his long and distinguished career has been of consistent and supreme mastery.

This London recital, given to a capacity audience, was a moving occasion – not because Brendel showed any signs of being past his prime but because the 77-year-old was on such fine form that it was sad to think that we may never again hear playing of such calibre. There was much joy too – not least from Brendel himself, who beamed appreciatively during the rapturous applause (and also during some of the more radiant passages of music).

The carefully planned programme reflected Brendel’s strongest musical passions – repertoire for which he has long had a particular affinity.

The three works in the first half are each partly influenced by Baroque styles. Brendel’s advancing years have brought mellowness to his playing – but no trace of lethargy; the deeply penetrative maturity adding an extra dimension to his trademark attentive style and nimble touch. Throughout he demonstrated a formidable technique of absolute control: strength, power, delicacy, subtlety and – above all – a supreme sense of line, his interpretative ideas being of absolute rightness to illustrate the music.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor is an unusually emotional work. Brendel resisted temptation to ham-up the ‘Sturm und Drang’ elements; instead he imbued the music with an effective quiet emotional intensity, with the aid of his effortlessly silken touch.

Brendel then illuminated depths in Mozart’s F major Sonata not always found by other pianists. With beautifully melodic playing, the outward simplicity of Mozart’s themes radiated warmth and affection; and the rapid contrapuntal complexities of the turbulent development of the Andante were handled awe-inspiringly.

Beethoven’s contrast-packed Sonata quasi una fantasia was, by turns, calm and tranquil, sparklingly lively and animated, and intensely weighty and powerful.

The recital’s second half consisted of Schubert’s final sonata. In Brendel’s hands the wistful pathos of the opening movement was infused with greater serenity and gentleness than usual, the faster passages lightly tripping, and all driven with a natural forward momentum. The heart of the work, and the concert, was the heart-wrenching Andante sostenuto: deeply moving but never indulgently sentimental, Brendel’s focused, intimate account nevertheless drew the audience in.

Following completion of Schubert’s work with an elfin scherzo and resolute finale there followed a cheering and standing ovation – and three encores: the lamentation-inflected slow movement of Bach’s ‘Italian’ Concerto; Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt displayed Schubertian influences in its delicate lilting; and, finally, Schubert, once more, his G flat Impromptu (from the D899 set), a spellbindingly fluid performance, valedictory yet optimistically uplifting.

Memories of this concert will be treasured for many years. Brendel has chosen to bow out of concerts while at the top of his game. He will be greatly missed.

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