The Brendels

Beethoven
Sonata for piano and cello in F, Op.5/1
Piano Sonata in D minor, Op.31/2 (Tempest)
Variations on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes”from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45
Sonata for piano and cello in D, Op.102/2

Adrian Brendel (cello) &
Alfred Brendel (piano)


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 June, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Back came the Brendels, father and son, nearly a year-on to complete their Beethoven ‘Sonatas for Piano and Cello’ cycle (note the composer’s ordering of instruments). In the intervening twelve months they have performed the sonatas regularly together and the cycle is being recorded. Adrian is a fine and characterful cellist and his playing deserves to be heard irrespective of the fact that he has one of the great pianists for a father and musical partner.

This second recital-programme grouped the first and last cello sonatas, a set of variations for both instruments, and a favourite piano sonata. Over the past year Adrian seems to have gained in confidence; his tone, already ample, has improved in quality and he clearly enjoys his music-making, tucking into it with relish. He has a fine cantabile and has clearly inherited his father’s puckish sense of humour.

The first of the Op.5 cello sonatas is a large-scale piece in two movements – after its Adagio introduction the first movement, with repeat (subtly varied here), runs to a full 18 minutes with a huge exposition containing no less than four fully formed themes. This is music tailored to the Brendels’ enjoyment of witty repartee – almost family banter one might say. The concluding Allegro vivace found father and son at their considerable best.

It was a particular pleasure to then hear Alfred play the ‘Tempest Sonata’, although the capacity audience was not always as quietly-listening as one would expect, either at the Wigmore or anywhere else. This most Schubertian of Beethoven’s piano sonatas is music that Brendel does not so much perform as inhabit. The opening arpeggio cast a long spell, as did the recitative passages that punctuate the movement. Especially memorable was the Adagio in which time stopped and seemed to encapsulate a whole lifetime’s wisdom in its brief span. In the lilting, discursive Allegretto finale the obsessive, repetitive rhythms recalled the left-hand drumbeats of the slow movement; indeed seldom have the sonata’s three movements sounded as thematically inter-related as on this occasion. This was effectively a master-class in the art of Beethoven interpretation. Brendel maybe no longer has quite the power and sureness of former days, but that counts for nothing when set beside the essential rightness of his conception.

The ‘Handel Variations’ are pretty contemporaneous with the Op.5 sonatas and was here played with comic relish. Indeed one of the most pleasing aspects of the Brendels’ collaboration is the sense that one is eavesdropping on music-making that would be just as perceptive and illuminating if the two were playing in Alfred’s study at home.

To crown the series, the final cello sonata elicited just the right combination of power in the abrupt mood-swings of its opening movement and real inwardness in the great Adagio, surely one of Beethoven’s greatest, music of infinite sadness. Only in the relatively brief concluding Allegro fugato did one feel over-forcefulness creeping in.

Maybe the Brendels will now turn to Brahms’s sonatas?

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