The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Alfred Brendel’s ‘Farewell Concerts’ CD is a soulful, must-hear live recording that is a sure bet for ‘Top of 2010’ lists

January 15, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The new year is not very old yet. And already I have heard a new classical CD that is sure to remain a favorite, on the top of the stack next to my player, for the rest of 2010.

“Alfred Brendel: The Farewell Concerts” will be released in the U.S. by Decca next Tuesday. But already I have played an advance copy several times and I have found it to be a wonderful and thoroughly absorbing experience.

It marks the retirement from regular touring and concertizing of Alfred Brendel, the pianist who has played, performed and recorded everything from J.S. Bach to Schoenberg, but whose specialty is the First Viennese School: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

And that is the same repertoire he uses for this valedictory, which shows the subtle mastery that is achieved after spending 60 years on the concert stage and in the recording studio.

If you don’t know much about Brendel, who is also a poet , painter and critic, here are links to his Wikipedia entry and to his home page, which has lots to browse and listen to:

There are so many things to praise about this CD, which is really a 2-CD set of live recordings from a concerto performance in Vienna and a solo recital in Hanover, Germany, both of which took place in December 2008.

To start, this is a recital with a perfect – and I mean perfect – selection of works, the kind of organic program that comes with the wisdom and experience of age. Brendel has played, performed and recorded – sometimes several times — just about all the works for piano by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

It opens with the performance of Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” (“young man”) Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat Major, K. 217, with Sir Charles Mackerras ands the Vienna Philharmonic. Brendel has partnered before with Mackerras in Mozart concerto recordings, and their familiarity with each other works flawlessly. (The concerto, the way is not named for a young and vigorous Mozart, which would make it a fittingly ironic choice for the elder Brendel to play as a valedictory, but for a Madame Jeunehomme.)

Then it is on to the recital.

It opens with Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, a soulful and less witty or humorous work often thought to express Haydn’s sorrow over the death of a woman, beside his wife, he has deeply loved. Brendel gives a potent performance that is as moving as the music and the story behind it.

Then it is on to one of the more rarely played Mozart’s late Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494. It is a quiet and complex sonata with the counterpoint that Mozart loved to use in his final works. It is decidedly not music-box Mozart and all the more attractive because of that.

For Beethoven, Brendel opts for the Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1, the sister sonata to the famous “Moonlight” Sonata. It is less well-known, but deserves to be performed more. It is a kind of fantasy structure rather than a strict sonata. But it works its magic, especially in its contrasting moods. Brendel makes it cohere and brings it off exactly right.

Then comes the masterpiece of all masterpieces: Schubert’s deep and deeply felt final piano sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, composed shortly before Schubert died at 31 (By contrast, Mozart lived until 35). Just put it on, make sure the house is quiet, don’t answer the phone and let yourself be entranced and enthralled for almost 40 minutes.

Three encores follow: Beethoven’s early miniature, the Bagatelle in A Major, Op. 33. No 4; Schubert’s songful Impromptu in G-Flat Major; and J.S. Bach’s prayer-like chorale “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Here Comes the Holy Saviour) in a masterful piano settings by Busoni.

A word about the sonics: These audiences are well-behaved. There is little coughing to interfere and just the right amount of applause is used to make you feel the spontaneity of the live event, the share the audience’s appreciation and the poignancy of the good-byes.

It is also worth noting that I have heard Brendel perform these works often – more than two or three times on recordings and in his several appearances in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater – but never I have heard him more convincing. The emotion of the moment, of the occasion, shows in his playing and reveals why there is nothing to compare with live music-making.

This is music by masters played by a master,

Get it somehow, and listen to it, and let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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