Alfred Brendel - The Farewell Concerts
CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Concerto for Piano no.9 in E flat major, K 271 “Jeunehomme” (1777) [34:44]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata for Keyboard in F minor, H 17 no 6: Variations (1793) [11:38]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Sonata for Piano no.15 in F major, K 533/494 (1788) [24:55]
CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata for Piano no 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 no 1 "Quasi una fantasia" (1800-01) [16:22]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata for Piano in B flat major, D 960 (1828) [37:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Bagatelle, Op. 33: no.4 in A major, Andante (1801-02) [3:33]
Impromptu, D 899/Op. 90: no.3 in G flat major (1827) [6:16]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale Prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (arr. Busoni) (1723) [5:44]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, 18 December 2008, Musikverein, Vienna (Mozart) and 14 December 2008, Grosser Sendesaal, Landesfunkhaus Niedersachsen, Hanover
DECCA 478 2116 [71:21 + 69:48]

While I will be hauling out a few points of reference, this is not a release which invites in-depth comparisons with alternative recordings of the works programmed. Fans of Alfred Brendel, like me, will want this as a last extra souvenir of that magic, a little ‘more of same’, with the extra touch of poignancy which goes with a ‘last of’ anything which is a bit special, even a bit more than just special: something which has been a part of our lives for longer than some of us can even remember.

Alfred Brendel gives some interesting insights into his thoughts on the pieces in this programme, but doesn’t really go into why he selected them for his final concerts. A few brief paragraphs at the beginning of the booklet show that Brendel’s final appearances were planned well in advance, and that the results of these recordings “bear out the fact that I was right to stop concertising at a time when I was still in full command, and still able to add something to my insights.” Brendel’s own notes on the music are entitled “Surprises and Hidden Secrets”, and I think this does give some sense as to why these pieces were chosen. Each has that special ‘something’ which is often an elusive quality which keeps bringing you back to try and discover what this might be. As Brendel suggests with mention of his “long courtship of Mozart’s Sonata K 533/494 and the slow movement of K271”, these might be secrets which elude you for a lifetime, which you might feel you have approached on occasion, but after each performance can never say ‘that was entirely perfect.’

The choice of Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” concerto might seem a bit ironic in these circumstances, but as a ‘farewell’ piece it certainly has plenty of atmosphere: the longing wistfulness of that beautiful slow movement followed by a ‘welcome the coming, speed the parting guest’ kind of gallop, full of positive major tonality and a busy part for both orchestra and soloist. It might be easy to become a bit misty-eyed about such a recording, but for me this has all the fine qualities of the best kind of Brendel/Mackerras live performance, filled with subdued Mozartean energy. If this is not projected with quite the lively qualities of Brendel’s earlier outing with Neville Mariner released on Philips in the 1970s, then certainly with as much if not more of the content in terms of depth. There is a certain amount of audience noise, and Brendel’s own vocalisations are also unmistakably present, but the sense of occasion and emotional charge in the music more than make up for any blemishes. I wonder what you make of the first piano entry in that gorgeous slow movement by the way; 1:20 seconds in? Surely not an edit between the first two notes? Maybe not - I was convinced it was to start with, but the more I repeat that moment the less I care either way.

Moving to the Hanover venue, and we are welcomed at once by a much quieter milieu in terms of audience noise. Brendel’s own voice does sound through, but he doesn’t sing in quite the way Glenn Gould did or yell like Keith Jarrett, so listeners should be grateful rather than irritated. Brendel sees Haydn as the truly inventive pioneer we should all recognise these days, pointing out the anarchic fantasy towards the end of the otherwise fairly innocuous variations in the Sonata in F minor. Some passages from this if taken in isolation you might sooner ascribe to someone like Liszt than Haydn, with some remarkable chromatic gestures and ruminative, improvisatory sequences. CD 1 concludes with Mozart’s Sonata for Piano no. 15 in F major, K 533/494. Like the concerto which opens the disc, the central Andante dominates in terms of expressive power, and Brendel wrings plenty of this from the music without losing its fluid sense of motion and sense of creative joy - surprises and hidden secrets indeed in all of those harmonic twists.

It is hard for me not to come to Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano no 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 no 1 without making a comparison with that included in Brendel’s last complete cycle (see review). The timings between each are almost identical, but in 1993 Brendel was a little more fiery with his dynamics, a little more imposing in the Adagio con espressione. With a marginal softening in approach comes more reflective lyricism however, and with a lighter touch comes a slightly fleeter sense of forward movement in the final Allegro vivace. The live recording may have something to do with some of the subtleties in difference, but the bass definition in the piano is if anything even richer in this more recent NDR Radio/Decca recording and no punches are pulled in terms of dynamic kick. It is fascinating to compare and contrast, but in the end there is a sense of safe familiarity here. This is what one might expect when relating the recording of an artist in his mature prime, and 15 years later in his final public statement on a composer for whose interpretations the name of Alfred Brendel will always be a reference of one sort or another in our times and for a long time to come.  
So we come to one of my favourite piano pieces of all time, Schubert’s Sonata for Piano in B flat major, D 960. Recorded live before and previously heard for you here on these pages, the rather noisy 1997 Royal Festival Hall version is again as near to this in terms of timings as makes little difference, with only the final Allegro, ma non troppo being a little less headlong in terms of tempo. Whatever one’s opinions on the two performances, the 2008 recording is much better in terms of sound quality, the microphones much closer to the piano and picking up less of what in any case sounds to be a far less consumptive audience, and creating at once a warmer and more detailed picture of Brendel’s take on this marvellous music. This may have been Brendel’s final recital, but he still refuses to take an extreme view of the second movement’s Andante sostenuto, whose opening material seems to invite static expanses of protracted piano sound. Brendel hears the lyrical lines in the longer phrases more than the silences and depths which can, at risk, be plumbed by stretching the opening theme to give a feel of infinity. The infinite for Brendel’s Schubert is that which is expressed in the unsung words which might go with this were it a lied. The music breathes on a human scale, and doesn’t impose post-Schubertian Stanley Kubrick space-scapes, despite all of those ‘heavenly lengths’. In terms of the dance and dark wit which Brendel gives to the final two movements his reference to part of the Viennese character in the booklet notes is revealing, quoting a saying that says “the situation is hopeless, but not serious”. One of the last bitter-sweet tastes of creative life for the young Schubert is also one of the most important parts of Alfred Brendel’s final draught of public performance, and for me such a parallel forms the heart of this recital.

The final three pieces are listed as encores in the programme, the penultimate tear-jerker being a fine and lyrically poetic Schubert Impromptu, D 899/Op. 90: no.3 in G flat major, and, as he had also played in the Musikverein, Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. In the final reckoning, it is fitting that J.S. Bach should have the last word, just as when, in Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece Under Milk Wood, Mrs. Organ Morgan asks Organ Morgan: “Who do you like best. Organ?” and he replies, “Oh, Bach without any doubt. Bach every time for me.”

I have but one complaint about this release, and that is that the booklet is almost impossible to get at in the central ‘spine’ of the otherwise elegantly presented gatefold digipack. Alfred Brendel’s retirement is timely for us as well as for him. He has so clearly said about as much as he feels he can say on these and the other great works in his vast repertoire, and rightly does not want to carry on into an undignified decline, correctly preferring to “[look] forward to challenges of a different kind.” So, as you brush away a tear, rejoice in the legacy of one of the great pianists of our time and make sure you have a copy of these his final public concerts on your shelf. As Mrs. CD Reviewer said to Mr. CD Reviewer, “Oh stop weeping man, you can play the things more than once you know.”

Dominy Clements