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Harrogate  International  Music Festival: Alfred Brendel (Piano),  Haydn, Piano Sonata in D Hob. XVI/4; Schubert, Sonata for Piano no.18 in G D894; Mozart, Fantasia in C minor KV475; Mozart, Rondo in A minor KV511; Haydn, Piano Sonata in C Hob XVI/50. Harrogate International Centre, UK   30.07.2006 (JL)


The elderly soloist in white tuxedo sat at the piano bathed in a pool of light in this vast, black walled conference hall.  The audience hushed. He started to play and before he had got to the end of the second bar of music a woman behind me spontaneously whispered in breathless awe, “Fabulous!”.


I knew what she meant. The innocent first phrase of the opening Haydn sonata was turned with an exquisiteness – such musical perfection – that even the word “fabulous” seemed inadequate, proving that whatever the essence is, it cannot be described in words. The music speaks for itself. 


Alfred Brendel has a reputation for integrity. What this means is that there is a received wisdom that he is one of those musicians of whom it can be assumed that he puts the whole of his intellect and musicianship at the service of the composer he is interpreting. There is a sense of selfless mission. Whatever his technique, he was never one to want to be admired for virtuoso display as a thing in itself and as he gets older he has ceased to play works with that potential in public. In the year of his 75th birthday, he no longer plays for example, the Liszt B minor Sonata or the big war horse concertos. The result is that he is concentrating on solo pieces of the classical era, all in the case of this programme associated with Vienna; and with two Haydn piano sonatas he is clearly continuing the mission of advancing that composer’s cause.


Haydn’s piano music, most of it hardly played after the composer’s death, has never had such a champion as Brendel and thanks to him, the music is now taken more seriously. The opening (and little known) Sonata in D, written in the early 1780s, owes little to the emerging sonata form of its time being a two movement work, the first of which is an andante set of variations. Brendel played it with such beauty, sense of purpose and import that the thought crossed my mind that he might be making the music sound greater than it is. The later Sonata in D with which he ended the programme, however, is clearly a substantial work and the opening movement is a miracle of composition in which Haydn sets himself the challenge of  using only one theme as the subject of the piece, treating it to a range of contrasting moods and textures which the pianist pointed and highlighted but (as he always does) maintained a solid sense of progression and structure. By the end of the work, which ends with a characteristic movement of melodic charm interrupted with surprising twists and turns, I really was convinced that this was a very fine composition indeed.


Before that, in the second half, Brendel tackled two of Mozart’s single-movement keyboard works, both well known. The inventive Rondo in A minor plays upon the mood that a minor key can convey and  I have heard many a pianist overdo it  and border on sentimental pathos; something that Brendel would never do, producing more integrated and cumulative power as a  result.  The Fantasia in C minor I have always thought a problematic work with its short phrases that chop and change, the music wandering in an improvisatory manner. If you wanted this piece to sound a tight, integrated structure then Brendel is the man you would call for, but there is not very much that even he can do. Nevertheless, he made as good a case for the work as anyone could.


The main masterpiece of the programme was Schubert’s G major Sonata, the one that preceded the better known final three. There was a time when this work was not considered in the same class as the following works but as with Haydn, Brendel has done more than anyone in modern times to convince that Schubert did write masterpieces for the keyboard and that this sonata was among them. It is often described as “serene”, implying a light touch that may reflect the fact that Schubert, a man who suffered major mood swings, was going through a good period during its composition in 1826. Brendel’s interpretation over the years has always invested the work with more gravitas than most pianists, bringing out the underlying pathos beneath the beauty and apparent serenity. This applies in his recording for Philips made nearly 20 years ago. Both then and now he charts a course through the wonderful first movement that takes us from the relaxation of the opening theme through to later reappearances when it transforms into something sounding like a cry of despair. The slow movement, with its unassuming start is also interrupted with violent episodes that show that Schubert’s inner demons were still there; and while some pianists overdo these contrasts, Brendel brought out the troubled emotional threat while maintaining the steady structural integrity of the piece.  In the sonata's finale he proved that he can also delicately dance with anyone.


During interval discussion with friends, someone said that they occasionally felt they could do with a little more youthful “oomph” from the playing. This is a legitimate view and it did occur to me that a man in his mid- seventies playing music by someone still in their twenties might be trying to convey a maturity that is simply not there. Even so, I believe that Schubert, one of the greatest of musical geniuses, did contain within his being a sense of maturity belonging to the future years he was never to enjoy. Having already known for 4 years that he was under an indeterminate sentence of death from syphilis must have been a pretty maturing influence. I think Brendel senses that.


After we left the auditorium at the end of the recital and wound down the huge spiral ramp in what is one of the country’s largest conference venues, I overheard someone say, “I really felt I was in the presence of a great artist”. You can’t say fairer than that.


John Leeman




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