April 29, 2003

Great pianist Brendel lives up to his reputation

When revered pianist Alfred Brendel strolls on stage, unhurriedly and always slightly bent forward, his age makes itself felt, as does his idiosyncrasy. Scoffers might compare him to the hunchback of Notre Dame, but with his 70-odd years he still commands a magisterial stage presence: withdrawn and introspective, mumbling to himself like the late Glenn Gould, at once intensely concentrated and supremely witty.

That said, Brendel's great popularity among today's classical music audience is somewhat surprising because this deeply serious artist is anything but a showman. For decades his repertory has comprised none of the great romantic showpieces: no Chopin, no Rachmaninoff, and only the difficult and demanding late works by Listz. His highly refined playing--much more the result of hard, dedicated labor than any sort of sudden, mystically inexplicable romantic genius--does not make any concessions to mainstream listening habits. For all his quirks, Brendel is not one to surprise the audience with hammering bass octaves or with hidden side-melodies that are so often presented as interesting, yet merely superficial pianistic "findings." Even his Austrian countryman Friedrich Gulda used to decry his playing as boring and a complete waste of time. In one of the many disturbing passages of his autobiography, Gulda--himself, of course, a pianist of the highest accomplishment and even greater international notoriety--smugly invoked old memories from the Vienna of the 1940's and 50's where he, a premature genius who gave his first concert at the Musikverein at the early age of sixteen, always stole the show from Brendel.

Gulda's testimony isn't entirely misleading, for Brendel's star did take its time to rise. Though much-noted for his 60's recording of Beethoven's complete piano works--the first Beethoven integrale undertaken by any pianist--it was not until the 1970's that Brendel found his own pianistic style. In those years, he made his mark with astonishing performances of Schubert's piano music. In the 1930's, Sergei Rachmaninoff was still able to confess his astonishment at the existence of Schubert piano sonatas, though today such a reaction is evidence of the direst ignorance. That many young pianists today include several or all of Schubert's sonatas in their repertory is due mainly to Brendel and his almost single-handed rehabilitation of the Viennese master. At a time when Schubert's piano sonatas were still little-known, Brendel presented highly speculative and daring readings of these immortal scores. He often placed Schubert in close proximity to Mahler and fin-de-siecle angst. Whereas Schnabel tended to understand Schubert in an explosive and raging manner, and thus as a direct successor of Beethoven, Brendel established him as the Titan's antithesis, emphasizing the intimate and poetic qualities of this truly "new" music and giving himself fully to Schubert's sentimental journeys and poetic wanderings.

For, like Schubert, Brendel himself is a great pianistic storyteller. The playing style that he has developed over the past decades--a subtle, restrained, complex philosophical style--is centered not around impressionistic nuances in tonal valeurs or the quasi-operatic art of letting the leading voice sing like a bel canto aria. Rather, it is a unique sort of parlando, a way of shaping melodic phrases so that they almost acquire a speaking, rather than a singing, tone. Brendel's style might seem to efface the piano and rob it of its specific qualities, his exploitation of its orchestral qualities being so economic and restrained. In spite of this, his tone is of wondrous beauty, intimacy, fragility.

Needless to say, all of those qualities were once again present in Brendel's recent recital at Symphony Hall. As if to remind the audience that he is a musician, not merely a pianist, Brendel began with an unpretentious, seemingly unspectacular selection of Beethoven Bagatelles and Rondos. While the Bagatelles tend to receive more attention by piano professionals, the Rondos op. 51 are very rarely heard in concert halls. Like a Mozart sonata played by an unmusical pianist, they seem all too bland, even uninteresting, and not the kind of heroic Beethoven pieces that give audiences an adrenaline rush. Not so for the sensitive Brendel, who turned these innocent little vignettes into shining diamonds. While the remainder of the concert was no less satisfying, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, his performance of Schubert's unfinished Piano Sonata in C, D. 840 that stood out most.

As with his Unfinished Symphony in B minor, Schubert completed only the first movements of the sonata leaving the remaining two in sketches. If the first two seem more like a piano outline for a work later to be orchestrated, that is not the only thing that makes them unusual. For especially in the opening Moderato, Schubert works with strikingly little thematic material, carefully developing what little there is. For all the concentration involved, Schubert writes thematic transitions here as elegant and surprising as any in the piano literature. While the compositional strategy may seem rather Beethovenesque, the musical details are still essentially Schubertian: the endless meandering of the material, the "heavenly lengths," the awe inspiring climaxes and melancholy turns--and at the end of the movement, the insistent unwillingness to let the piece end, Schubert's characteristic urge to add another and yet another reflection on a theme, before the music withdraws.