Some pianists will be always known for their debut recital, Martha Argerich being a prime example. She blazed like a white hot meteor across the musical sky, and to some extent has struggled to maintain that trajectory ever since. For Alfred Brendel the reverse may be true. Even though his early Vox recordings are remarkable for their direct and intellectual approach to the Beethoven and Mozart solo piano repertoire, he has spent his sixty year career deepening his understanding of the standard repertoire, always searching for hidden meaning, never repeating the same interpretation twice or playing to the gallery. I first heard him perform live in the Senate House in Cambridge in the early seventies, was immediately smitten, and have never missed an opportunity to hear him wherever in the world I might be. He is not a natural pianist, like Lipatti or Rubinstein, not a showman like Horowitz or a poet like Perahia or Lupu. He doesn't command the burnished tone of Arrau or Gilels. He is an artist who works very hard to dig deep into the composer's meaning, never putting his own personality on display. To some he may at times appear mannered or lacking in bravura, but I only ever hear this when I put his recordings up against another pianist, never when listening to him in isolation.
Besides this fidelity to the composer, which I treasure greatly, Brendel brings some very special qualities of his own. His left hand is absolutely second to none in power and accuracy, and his sense of timing, the ability to sustain interest and a jaunty rhythm even at the slowest tempo, is remarkable. What makes him a genius for me is his ability to find the humor in so much of Beethoven and Haydn's music that most other other pianists simply miss.
Brendel retired from the concert stage in December 2008 at the age of 77, he is
still touring and lecturing on music. In November 2010 he lectured from the
piano at the wonderful new Koerner Hall in Toronto on the subject "Does
classical music have to be entirely serious?" I sat maybe six
feet from him as he delighted the audience with his in depth analysis of humor
in music, illustrated by lengthy extracts from the Beethoven sonatas. His
playing was as wonderful as ever. I sprung for this dual CD set from the
promotional table in the lobby, since the music included included some of my
The opening work, Mozart's first great masterpiece, the Jeunehomme concerto, is the only work taken from his final concert on December 18 in the Musikverein in Vienna. It's a wonderful performance from Brendel, rather less so from the Vienna Philharmonic under the usually reliable Mackerras, but the sound quality is a disappointment, except for the persistent coughing which is captured brilliantly.
meat here is the farewell recital recorded four days earlier in Hanover. This is
simply breathtaking. Featuring all the qualities Brendel is renowned for, with
absolute security of passage throughout, even the recording quality is
excellent. But Brendel exhibits here a directness, an attention to sonority and
a poetry that surpasses any other experience I have of his playing. In fact
playing like this should not be allowed and it is absolutely fitting that
Brendel retired immediately after, for who can compete with this absolute
mastery? It reminds me of the story of Jascha Heifetz's own American debut.
The hall was stacked with concert violinists, all anxious to see the young
phenom. Fiddler Mischa Elman turned to his friend Godowsky and said "Phew,
it's awful hot in here" to which Godowsky replied "Not for pianists!"
Brendel demonstrates his transcendental abilities in every work. I pulled out earlier Brendel performances of some of these works and I can assure you not only was he never better, he was never this good. Finally, after a lifetime of immersion, he could understand not only what the composer meant, but also how to convey that for the listener. Brendel writes, "Perhaps I was right to stop concertizing at a time when I was still in full command, and able to add something to my insights. If my long courtship of Mozart's Sonata, K544/494 and the slow movement of K271 has yielded some belated fruit, I should be happy." You should be happy Mr. Brendel, a fitting cap to a magnificent career.
Enjoyment:Sound Quality: Piano Recital Concerto: