Brendel lifts Schubert classic above the efforts of others as Symphony Hall

By Christian Kraus

Alfred Brendel is more than a pianist. Perhaps calling him a historical monument would go further in capturing his significance—however ordinary he may appear on stage and very much alive he still is. Brendel’s performances have not only enchanted audiences far and wide, they have also left an indelible mark on the history of music itself. Were one to single out his most lasting achievement, it would be his almost single-handed popularization of Schubert’s piano work since his pioneering recordings in the ’70s.

There are others, too, of course: Alfred Schnabel recorded unforgettable, still-viable accounts of Schubert’s late sonatas as early as the late ’30s, and Wilhelm Kempff, the pianist to whose musical physiognomy Brendel comes closest, played the complete sonatas in the ’60s. Nonetheless, the fact that Schubert’s piano work is today universally admired and performed by almost every important pianist remains a consequence of Brendel’s passionate pleas, both in writing and recording. Some 70 years ago, Sergei Rachmaninoff, himself a famous pianist, could confess that he didn’t even know that Schubert had composed sonatas. We owe it to Brendel that such ignorance is no longer possible today.

Brendel is now almost 75 years old, so seeing him play today is to witness the accumulated product of decades of dedicated musical labor. His repertoire has always been closely circumscribed: he stopped performing Chopin about 40 years ago, he only plays Lizst’s weighty, serious works, and Debussy or Ravel never appear on his programs. He plays little contemporary music, and he prefers to hear Bach or Scarlatti on the harpsichord. For most of his career he has concentrated on Beethoven and Schubert—although Mozart is now apparently becoming increasingly important to him. Such steadfastness and commitment is rare today. It defies the genius metaphors that often surround great artists. His life is and has been a classically modern life: concentrating on the things that are most important to him. Brendel’s hard work has produced overwhelming results, results that mute slanderers who would accuse him of “narrow specialization.”

Last Sunday, he returned to Symphony Hall with an offering of—once more—Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. He must have performed these works hundreds, or even thousands, of times, yet his accounts revealed not a trace of tired routine. Again, his unique touch was striking from the very start. The sound he produces is crystal clear and sharp.

Every tone was precisely etched and slightly detached—non legato—especially in the upper registers. His ornaments and trills are unprecedented; each one existing as a masterpiece of tasteful care, with each note clearly audible. Overall, this makes for an approach to the shaping of melodic lines that is less like operatic chant, and closer to eloquent, rhetorical speech.

Brendel always has a story to tell. But really, he has two different tones. What sets him apart from other pianists is the difference the left pedal makes. The left pedal, when pressed down, moves the keyboard slightly to the side, so that the hammers hit fewer of the strings for each tone. What often is used to allow the pianist to venture into pianissimo serves for Brendel as a way to open up a second world of sound—a qualitatively different expressive register. It is in this register that he carefully and sparingly ventures into sheer songfulness, shifting from bold drama to miraculous intimacy within the blink of an eye.

Prepared with these carefully honed skills, Brendel presented a Mozart in which everything came together perfectly. Technically, one might think that Mozart’s sonatas are easy to play, but so much can go wrong! They are, as Arthur Schnabel put it, “too easy for children, and too difficult for adults.” Brendel certainly did not reach the zenith of Mozart interpretation with the congenial, natural, Apollonian musicality of a Friedrich Gulda. His approach defied those who are quick to oppose “naturalness” with a supposedly bad artificiality. Certainly Brendel’s Mozart is “artificial”—carefully considered, well worked-out, consistently thought through, and not the product of inexplicable inspiration. Brendel, who is also one of the few great Haydn players, places Mozart in his context, emphasizing the theatrical, playful, operatic moments; toying with the audience where appropriate; and retaining his concentration even when, during the Sonata K281, the hearing aid of one audience member beeped long enough to cause a nervous stir everywhere except in the maestro himself.

But, unsurprisingly, the highlight of the afternoon was Brendel’s rendition of Schubert’s three late piano pieces, D. 946—most memorably, his account of the second. This piece has a simple structure. It begins with a long, tale-like section in E flat major, one that could well be borrowed from one of Schubert’s many songs. That section is repeated twice in full, interspersed by extensive, dark meditations in C minor and E flat minor. The first intermezzo is eerie, driven, and angrily dramatic, with the second articulating the melancholy longing so characteristic of Schubert’s late works. The literal repeating of the main section presents a problem for the interpreter: it is clear that the profound intermezzi have to leave their mark somehow, but the score gives little indication about how this is to be done. Brendel chose a most ingenuous path: he began the main theme slowly, arduously, as if weighed down by memory and anxiety. Against this background, the intermezzi appeared as moments of recollection, or confessions of a tormented soul. Returning for the third time, the piece had been successfully analyzed, moving along more fluently and with less restraint.

Brendel’s Schubertian qualities made for a strong, if not perfect, account of Beethoven’s late sonata Op. 109. He has always been a little too reserved to excel in Beethoven’s most obsessively driven passages. His wise, unpretentiously swift take on the final movement’s variation theme was moving. It indicated both his mastery at pianistic control and his rare ability to construct a polyphonic chordal structure without losing sight of the thematic line. In the final variation—a wild outburst with bizarre trills and jagged, fast runs in both hands—Brendel, like most other pianists, fell short of the ideal. In his book on the sonatas, Joachim Kaiser wrote, “No excuses, no premature softening or slowing-down are valid here. No taming of the violent forces is physically or morally admissible.” Perhaps, then, one would have to say that Brendel’s performance ended immorally, but the quiet return of the theme after such drama returned us straight to piano heaven. Let’s hope that Brendel will return many more times with his Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, as well as his bottomless well of musical beauty.