Alfred Brendel’s miniaturist fingers lend sophistication to classic compositions

By Manasi Vydyanath

In Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde wrote, “The world is made by the singer for the dreamer.”

Entering the world of Alfred Brendel is like looking upon the introspections of a Dickensian craftsman through a softly lit window—one sees someone who is entirely content to simply create, contemplate, and wonder in the isolation of a quaint cottage upon the English moors. Brendel’s world is wrought in marvelous miniature, where epics are played out in dollhouses, and blazing tempests and furious resurrections are recreated in the misty fragility of a snow globe. With quietly impeccable technique and exquisite perception, he wanders the pianistic world in a metaphysical frock-coat; he is an unsurpassed artist and a quintessentially Victorian gentleman.

This Sunday at Symphony Hall, his entrance onstage was unassuming and almost anti-climactic, considering the frenzied and serpentine queues outside at the box-office. He made his way to the piano with an air of faint abstraction, as if briefly wondering at the presence of an audience and almost immediately forgetting their existence. He began to play at once—not even allowing the applause to fully die down. The audience, their reactions, their sentiments or sounds were cosmically irrelevant, for he played as if he had just casually sat down at the piano on a sunny morning to muse upon Mozart and the sayings of Schubert.

In many ways he was the very embodiment of art utterly and absolutely for its own sake, for his own sake. For Mozart this approach was ideal; Brendel commenced with the Variations upon a Minuet by J. Duport in D, K573, one of Mozart’s charming, comforting works that elegantly weaves filigree patterns around the central theme. It lays no claim to immortality, profundity, or intensity, therefore attaining all three. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the work was quite incorrigible. Irrepressible and dewy, it freshened the atmosphere of Symphony Hall like a profusion of wildflowers in a gilded salon. Although the work was late Mozart, Brendel shied away from graduated dynamics—he employed curiously little crescendi, preferring instead to work in forte-piano.

Usually, performing Baroque and early Classical music in forte-piano is akin to painting in black and white. One can indeed achieve incredible beauty in this medium—after all, every shade of color corresponds to a unique nuance of grey—but often the effect is one of a leaching, in which expression fades from the painting until a paradoxically stagnant dynamism is created. The contrast between black and white is so brazen that it fails to be as intriguing as the possible shades of gray. One can only do so much with silhouettes. Brendel, however, managed to create an almost unimaginable variety of expression, plays of shadow, and delicate demarcations of depth. He would stretch a piano until it brushed the borders of a mezzo-piano, but he would always bring it back at the last minute; then he would simulate a crescendo with accentuated articulation and increased pedaling until he had almost convinced the audience that the volume was actually increasing; then he would drop in emphasis ever so slightly, as if to remind us that the storm was but an illusion. His dazzling variety of articulation, enunciation, and phrasing made the forte-piano of his performance seem equal, even superior, to the renditions of Mozart in conventional dynamics—it brought to mind the recording of Bach’s partitas for unaccompanied violin as performed by Menuhin. They contain the same rich expressionistic palette, even though Brendel works entirely in black and white. His technique was contemplative, his tempi unhurried. Brendel’s Mozart was a shy and enchanting creation, Mozart at his most classically ingenuous.

Brendel went on to play Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and the very introspection and Victorianism that had vivified the Mozart worked against him. Schumann as a composer—and a critic—was as changeable and whimsical as the sea, alternating between bursts of sunshine and tempestuous whirlwinds. This is eloquently demonstrated in the Florestan-Eusebius constructs that he employed in his art. Florestan was the brighter, happier, more charming character who sparkled with wisdom and wit. In sharp counterpoint stood Eusebius, the darker, haunted, tumultuous side of Schumann, a side that was as intense as it was ungovernable and sombre, sometimes even sinister. The Kreisleriana was, by Schumann’s own admission, one of the more coruscating and passionate works he wrote. Tales of power, legends of doom and passion are interspersed with a Homeric lyricism and bursts of unpredictable sweetness. The work is intended to be an explicit interweaving of two completely different themes. The first is Florestan-like, and the second is characteristically, rhythmically, and melodically Eusebius. These themes play off of each other, draw from each other’s moods, rework new motivic material in very different ways, and never really achieve integration. Even at the end of the work they are left unresolved.

Brendel gave a masterly exposition of the Florestan-aspect of the piece, but in all his courtly elegance, could not bring himself to understand Eusebius. He could strive to create the storms and the outbursts of depression and almost succeed, but at the moment of utter abandonment there would always lurk an element of restraint, an element of dignity and spectatorship that would prevent him from giving it full, involved expression. His block chords contained just a millisecond of space in front of them, his crescendi climaxed just a fraction of a second too late, and Eusebius remained half-expounded, while Florestan was fully developed. Further, the structure of the Kreisleriana did not allow Florestan to redeem the piece as a whole—both facets of Schumann are needed to make the piece complete. Without Eusebius, Florestan was impotent.

Brendel went on to play selections from Schubert’s Moments Musicaux and pulled it off brilliantly. Schubert is a singer, just like Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and early Beethoven, and his detailed worlds are perfectly constructed for a consummate dreamer like Brendel. Schumann, on the other hand, is more of an orator, and fiery philosophic debates do not take kindly to being contained in snow-globes. Brendel’s fractionally lagged chords, his self-effacing enunciation, his sharp staccati, and his subtle dynamic shifts kept Schubert on the right side of melancholy and redeemed it from heroism. His superb sense of legato, with minimal pedaling and crisp notes that seem to border on being merely sustained, made the scalic passages in Schubert achingly lovely. He ended the concert with Beethoven’s Pastorale sonata, Op. 28. Once again, early Beethoven was eminently conducive to his style—the trio was the only less-than-superlative part of the piece. The wicked three-note figure was bounced a little too much from the wrist and came out sounding like a two-note motif. But apart from that very minor issue, the sonata was beautifully crafted.

The concert was uniquely Brendel. He superimposed his distinctive style on every piece he played, refracting every world into miniature, projecting every piece into perfect three-dimensional sketches. The viewpoint of his exploration was always from outside looking in—an irredeemable spectator. Beauty, when it arose, was transcendental but incidental; purely a product of a coincidence between the composer’s intent and Brendel’s interpretation. Brendel never interpreted a piece—he invited the music to be interpreted from his perspective.