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Haydn, Schubert, Mozart:
Alfred Brendel (piano). Barbican Hall, 16.06. 2006 (CC)

Haydn, Schubert and Mozart – absolutely core Brendel territory here. When Brendel gave his last concert at the RFH, it was difficult to imagine him scaling the same heights (see review). How wonderful that he retains the capacity to delight, astonish and, perhaps most importantly here, to prove us critics wrong.

Haydn bookended the recital. In a note in the programme, Brendel dwells on Haydn's capacity for surprise and humour (a very different kind of use of surprise to CPE Bach). Musically he began in much more reflective mode, though. The first movement of the D major Sonata, Hob. XVI/42 is marked 'Andante con espressione' and is a set of variations. To begin a recital like this takes real guts. Brendel, with his huge experience to call on, did not over-project, rather inviting the audience to join him. This exploratory Haydn emerged as deeper than one might have expected. If articulation could have been a touch neater in the finale, it remained a delight – especially the pianist's cheeky look at the audience at the very end!.

The famous C major, HobXVI/50 closed the evening. Hearing it reminded me of the stature of Brendel's Philips recording of this work, from the playfulness of the opening movement (very much opera buffa and endowed with crystalline clarity), through the laughing staccato and perfectly judged touch of the Adagio through to the humourous finale (just the sort of humour Brendel does so well).

Schubert's great G major Sonata, D894, was the other work in the first half. Alas heard to the intermittent buzz of what was probably a hearing-aid problem (there was an entreaty over the speakers in the interval for patrons to ensure this did not repeat), all credit should go to Brendel for maintaining full concentration throughout. The first movement, while imbued with a Winterreise-like sense of space and desolate pianissimi was nevertheless warm of tone and even had an authentically Austrian lilt at one point. Talking of Winterreise, this first movement is indeed a huge journey in its own right and it was a privilege to accompany Brendel on it. The slow movement runs on that deceptive simplicity Brendel excels at (a hugely expressive right hand) while the Trio of the Menuetto was a simply gorgeous lullaby. The sense between the programming of the Haydn and the Schubert became clear in D894's finale, where the sense of humour made it feel very close to the Haydn D major.

Finally, two Mozart pieces. The C minor Fantasia, K475 was coupled not with its familiar bedfellow, the C minor Sonata K457, but rather with the melancholy A minor Rondo, K511. Taking the Fantasia's opening at a portentiously slow tempo, intensity was almost visceral. Harmonic colourings were superbly judged – there was a real sense of the exploratory here. Pregnant pauses were perfectly judged. The A minor Rondo was tremendously sad, sounding rather like a shadowy Chopin Waltz in places. The close was perfect. Brendel is a remarkable man and a remarkable musician. We are lucky to enjoy so much of him here in London.

Colin Clarke



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)