Alfred Brendel – the RFH’s final classical concert

Variations on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport, K573
Kreisleriana, Op.16
Moments musicaux, D780 – No.1 in C, No.2 in A flat, No.4 in C sharp minor
Sonata in D, Op.28 (Pastoral)

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 June, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

How fitting that Alfred Brendel, who first played in this hall some 40 years ago and has since become an adoptive Londoner, should give the last classical concert in the Royal Festival Hall before it finally closes for refurbishment.

By way of warm-up Brendel gave us Mozart’s Duport Variations, Duport being the first cellist in the Prussian Court orchestra. Despite its late Köchel number, this anodyne, undemanding work touches a deeper level only briefly in the minor-key sixth variation. Brendel played the work with evident affection, effortlessly finding the right tone of voice for each Variation; but this is one of Mozart’s weaker works, a hack job written to ingratiate himself with the Prussian court, which he failed to do.

Kreisleriana, though, is a supreme masterpiece of the piano literature. Brendel no longer plays the impetuous numbers with the fire he once did, but there was a seamless, lived-in quality to this music-making: an apposite musing, and emotion recollected in tranquillity; understated to a degree, Brendel’s performance encapsulated the wisdom of a lifetime’s deep love and familiarity; he has his parallel career as a poet and one was reminded of the postlude to Schumann’s Kinderszenen, ‘The Poet Speaks’.

There could be little doubt about the cannily chosen Moments Musicaux. From the opening of the C major we passed through a magic portal, transported to the essence of Schubert’s interior world of lost content. At the heart of the group lay the meditative A flat, an extended Andantino; its obsessively repeated rhythms are punctuated by the very briefest climax, a shriek of pain all the more shocking in Brendel’s hands for its eruptive suddenness, a pianist especially well-equipped to explore the rhetoric behind this music, timing its pauses perfectly, and holding the audience in a vice-like grip. The C sharp minor, on the face of it in straightforward ABA form, a moto perpetuo punctuated by a lilting central section, was interpreted by Brendel as having a schizophrenic quality, an interior dialogue between separate pieces co-existing in the one body – deeply disturbing but quintessential Schubert.

Haydn’s C major Sonata (Hoboken 48) had originally been billed as the recital’s final item – and we got its finale as the first of two encores. Instead Brendel offered Beethoven’s so-called ‘Pastoral’ Sonata. This is perhaps his most expansively Schubertian sonata with moments in both outer movements that might pass for Schubert. Nothing Brendel ever does is negligible and he distilled its Constable-like landscape with his customary subtlety if without quite the firmness of contour that he once brought to it. Best of all was the slightly menacing Andante, and the Sonata’s ultimate pages were given with a feather-light wit that is purest Brendel.

For his second encore Brendel played Busoni’s sonorous arrangement of Bach’s Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (BWV659); how fitting that Bach should have the very last word.

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