Prom 61: 5th September – Brendel

Symphony No.32 in G, K318
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Concerto in D for strings
Symphony No.4 in C minor

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A symphony that’s not a symphony, a concerto that’s not a concerto – and Brendel déjà vu.

K318 is a short three-movement Italian sinfonia, the third section musically similar to the first. Stravinsky’s concerto returns to classical models and a Baroque-like use of ripieno and concertino, also in three movements, a contrast of rhythmic pungency and lyrical interludes, the middle ’Arioso’ sweetly regretful. Mackerras turned the music’s sentiment with enough affection to reveal its silky expression. The outer movements had drive and panache, a bristle and unanimity which made Stravinsky’s rhythms sit up; a healthy palette of string ’colour’ further enlivened this splendid performance. K318 was nimble, energetic and robust in the outer movements, the courtly embrace of the middle ’Andante’ amiable. Mackerras’s use of natural horns (four of them for No.32 and Schubert) and trumpets added a brazen brass chorus, a militaristic edge to the SCO’s otherwise modern dress … or a less welcome tonal splurge depending on viewpoint – I find these blends somewhat incongruous, especially when there’s more chance of duff notes than with valved instruments.

Schubert’s ’Tragic’ mode – and only 19! – isn’t experienced with a Mahlerian sense of explicit programme. Schubert’s is a classical concept, one where expression is strivingly accented and personal disquiet is expressed formally; the orchestration has a visceral edge, the ’rough’ brass working to advantage here. Mackerras opted for force tempered by civility; wind, brass and (incisive if at times rather reticent) timpani were given equality with the strings. Yet it was an instrumental rather than emotional force that guided the performance, Mackerras a tad too urbane to reveal the composer’s darker side; he did though emphasise the final chords with an unerring sense of foreboding.

Only a few months ago in the RFH Alfred Brendel gave K503 with the Philharmonia and Dohnanyi. From a big-band accompaniment in a dry acoustic to fewer personnel in a spacious acoustic proved advantageous – the RFH account never quite took off. Mackerras found a just balance between this concerto’s majestic, ethereal and opera buffa elements. Brendel was in prime form – searching, confidential, unselfish (with a delicacy of touch allowing important orchestral parts the lead) – processing the music’s varied moods with a focus that compelled attention. Brendel’s plain-speaking erudition is without artifice, constantly enlivened by witty and touching asides; it’s Brendel’s contemplation, seriousness and humanity that enthrals. His cadenzas – extending the music and not for display purposes – typify Brendel’s depth of purpose.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 13 September, at 2 o’clock
  • Brendel’s RFH K503 – click here for review

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