In Old Vienna
Franz Joseph Haydn: Sonata in E Flat Hob. XVI:49
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in B Flat K.333
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A Minor D.845
Alfred Brendel (piano)
As the season winds down in New York this year, it is important to reflect on its programmatic nature. As befits a celebration of the millennium, most of the bills of fare have been heavily weighted towards the 20th century and the resulting gestalt has been illuminating not only about the period but also about our own listening selves. It was therefore all the more purifying to attend a recital last evening that brought us all back to our listening roots, dwelling totally within the cocoon of Imperial Vienna during its first musical golden age. No other guide would be more qualified to lead us on this tour than Alfred Brendel, who has devoted his life to these wonderful masterworks, dabbling only occasionally in the more murky waters of dodecaphonism and pantonality. Although advanced in years, Brendel is still an acolyte and his particular brand of enthusiasm for this logical and precious beauty is highly infectious.
I have always found the Haydn keyboard music to be his most delightful, capturing the full measure of his deist optimism as no other music can. Brendel reveled in the bright modern piano sound which magically transforms this music and performed a rhythmically daring and rubato-laden version of this essay in fits and starts. A favorite of such diverse pianists as the late Horowitz and Gould, this particular sonata is often in the forefront of my mind’s ear and so I was personally gratified to hear it played so animatedly.
In a bit of intelligent programming, Brendel followed the Haydn with its Mozartean variant, again coincidentally a favorite of both Gould and Horowitz. However, this thematic approach backfired on the performer, as the very similar music (in spots it sounds like the exact same piece as its predecessor) was not very crisply played and, since Mozart requires a very consistent beat throughout, just came down as a pale repetition of the more lively original, instead of the intellectually improved repast that it actually is. Brendel, like Andre Watts, is one of those crowd favorites who can be (and is) forgiven for many wrong notes, but the tedium of the Mozart (unforgivable!) only made these faux pas seem irritating.
The break seemed to rejuvenate the old lion, for he launched into a very dramatic reading of the Schubert, pacing his dynamic surges masterfully and leaving one with the sense that this was a sonic novel being read aloud by a poetic actor. Even the technique was sharper and it was hard not to think that as an artist who knows his own physical limitations, Brendel was pacing himself in the first half of the program. But no matter if the result is such an exciting piece of early Romanticism. The crowd was suitably roused and very appreciative in the two finely done encores. Not a great musical experience but a satisfying immersion in the urtext that led to the 20th century in the first place.
Frederick L. Kirshnit