Alfred Brendel Edition, Box 1
For his sixty-fifth birthday Philips present Alfred Brendel – the finest scholar-pianist of our time – with a 25-disc tribute and salute; one which celebrates his vision and artistry in all its richness and diversity. And whether revisiting favourite performances (ones which have journeyed from shelf to turntable for ever fresh illumination and insight) or hearing others for the first time I was repeatedly struck by a rare union of learning and adventure, of the letter and spirit of great music-making. Every performance is a surprise. Nothing is taken for granted, and although everything is subjected to a probing scrutiny and intensity, removing the barnacles and cliches of stale custom and tradition, Brendel’s awe and affection for his chosen works are never in doubt.
Not content with his career as a pianist Brendel is also a writer whose apercus are often as witty and weighty as his performances. Asked to define piano playing of genius he unhesitatingly replies, “playing which is at once correct and bold. Its correctness tells us that is how it has to be, its boldness presents us with an overwhelming realization; what we had thought impossible becomes true.” Later he confides: “for most people ambiguity holds little attraction – what they look out for is hardly something which will disturb them by enlarging their view of life, but something which will reassure them by simplifying it”. Brendel would, in all modesty, reserve the term ‘genius’ for his own particular favourites, for Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff and Edwin Fisher, yet how else can I describe a pianist who practises so faithfully what he preaches, who creates a grand and supreme illusion where composer and interpreter, creator and re-creator become one and the same person? From Brendel, to paraphrase Milton, “musical compositions are not absolutely dead things … a good composition is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured upon purpose to a life beyond life”.
However, from the general to the particular. Brendel’s partnership in Mozart with Sir Neville Marriner has surely produced some of the most exultant music making on record. Wherever you alight in their concerto cycle you find a ready and attentive response to the greatest of all concertos; to music in which rain and sunshine, tears and laughter are inextricably mixed. From Brendel the festive brilliance of the much-maligned Coronation Concerto, K537 takes on a life-affirming quality, the very reverse of superficial, and how often do you hear K450 (a concerto “to make the pianist sweat” according to Mozart) played with a gentleness and thoughtfulness light years away from the frothy bravura of lesser artists? Listen to Marriner’s introduction to the central Andante and to the gravity of Brendel’s reply and you will become aware of a true oasis of calm, long remembered after the finale’s fairy-tale frolics, its fifes and horns have ceased. You will find a no less assured equilibrium in the autumnal K595 where the key of B flat takes on a darker hue and significance, and in the profound depths of the B minor Adagio Brendel disguises art with art, the transparent result of years of experiment and consideration.
Whether you consider Brendel’s Beethoven live (notably the Hammerklavier Sonata and the concerto cycle with the Chicago Symphony and James Levine) or in the studio, his lucidity is formidable indeed. Even when he swallows the
Then there is Brendel’s Schubert, where, with all of his courage and resolution, he assails both convention and fashionable whimsy. The view of Schubert as a Viennese charmer or the teller of homespun fireside tales has no place in his reckoning and neither have the pseudo-profundities of those who resort to drastic alterations of Schubert’s tempo markings to make their point. After listening to his way with the short A major Sonata, D664 you may well feel a powerful sense of dislodgement. Where are “the smiling lights and colours of a spring day” we all cherished, where the enraptured lyricism of a Kempff (DG, 10/69) or the celebrated warmth of Dame Myra Hess (APR, Pearl and Biddulph, 8/90, 5/91 and 3/95 respectively) Brendel’s colouring is dark and intense, particularly in the first movement’s octave storms. The central Andante is fast flowing, austere in both sound and texture, its later left- and right-hand dialogue disconsolate indeed. The outwardly genial and buccolic finale, too, is full of surprises, clouded by a truly extraordinary sense of drama. In the development Brendel brings all impetus and momentum to a near halt and, as an audacious consequence, the music limps to its final conclusion in a state of near exhaustion rather than elation. The desolating world of Winterreise looms large and you may well end up, like Wallace Stevens’s frozen protagonist, left with a frightening sense of negation, beholding “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.
Of course in the sets of German Dances, Landler and Ecossaises – diamond chippings from the master’s workshop – you will suitably hear lighter hands at work, but in the B flat Sonata, D960 Brendel’s classical sobriety is combined with an acute sense of underlying tension and tumult.
Brendel has often argued that Chopin’s world, and particularly his sound-world, is a specialist’s paradise; one too all-involving and consuming to exist satisfactorily as an adjunct to other great composers. And so, after a brief flirtation, he reserves his deepest romantic sympathies for Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. To some Brendel’s Schumann Fantasy may seem romantically ungrateful, almost as if forged by Vulcan. Yet, again, that characteristic single-mindedness, allowing for few passing fancies or indulgences, brings rich dividends and rewards. In the finale’s Eusebian rapture there is no “shifting of sunset vapour” but a grave serenity, a lack of sentimentality that makes Brendel a modern pianist in the best and truest sense. Yet even when you feel momentarily discomforted by his severity he gives you a Kinderszenen of an inspired candour and simplicity. From him “Dreaming” is a marvel of pianistic and poetic translucency, his “Rocking-Horse” a trusted and beloved rather than dangerous nursery companion. His “Entreating Child” pleads his case without a trace of archness or whimsy and the “Sleeping Child” is played with a truly exquisite inwardness and delicacy. Once more, Brendel is too inclusive an artist not to convey a disturbing undertow in “Almost too serious” or “Frightening” where innocence perhaps meets experience for the first time. But his “Perfect Happiness” is unclouded and, all in all, I couldn’t help wishing that Brendel could be coaxed into other ‘strange lands’ and give us Debussy’s
Few pianists have made a more persuasive case for Liszt than Brendel. In the teeth of fierce opposition he has firmly placed Liszt in the Parthenon of great composers, particularly in his incomparable performance of the B minor Sonata where he penetrates far below the surface of the composer’s emotional vortex and surface rhetoric. Yet having written primarily about Liszt and Brendel elsewhere (in the notes accompanying the box devoted to Liszt) I would like to end with a few words concerning Brendel’s heaven-storming assault on that most epic of all concertos, the Brahms B flat. How typical of a pianist who writes of “the most unsurpassable of pianistic perversions” in this work to master them, not with unsuitable ease, but with all the physical and mental resources at his command. Superbly partnered by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Brendel’s performance blazes with rhetorical drama, proclaiming in every bar that there are higher goods in musical life than decorum or finesse. Even in that “great and child-like finale’ (Tovey) Brendel concentrates on colossal underlying forces rather than on music which should “fall away in a glory of tumbling gaiety”. From Brendel and Abbado this unique finale is a true dance of the gods.
These, then, are a few of the riches awaiting anyone investigating “The Art of Alfred Brendel”. Personal, and of the finest integrity, he take us far away from the bad old days when a composer was considered little more than a spring-board for every vainglorious excess; from an often tarnished rather than golden age of music-making. Like the protagonist in Samuel Johnson’s third number of The Rambler Brendel bears “an unextinguishable torch, manufactured by Labour and lighted by Truth, of which it is the particular quality immediately to show everything in its true form, however it might be disguised to common eyes”.