So farewell, then... the classical music world has witnessed the last solo performance by a Titan. Alfred Brendel, who has commanded the field in Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert since his emergence in the Sixties, chose works by those three composers plus Mozart to bow out on: the music of Habsburg Vienna, which he has made his own.
Haydn's Variations in F minor belie their disarming subtitle – "Un piccolo divertimento" – with a wealth of subtle invention, and Brendel slipped gracefully into them: a firm pace, a silky sound, dynamics under perfect control until the coda, at which point he dramatically heightened the work's valedictory emotion. Following this with Mozart's mysterious Sonata in F, K 533, where Viennese courtliness is ripped apart to reveal boiling cross-currents, he again showed what universes can be conjured up by the most intimate and understated of means.
On then to Beethoven but, mercifully, not to one of the great, and greatly over-played, final sonatas: by choosing the Sonata quasi una fantasia in E flat, Brendel gave us a taste of the youngish Beethoven as improviser and showman. But we had been here with Brendel before: the utterly compelling nature of his Beethoven in his prime was now reduced to something which, though beautiful, was more ordinary.
This music should make its effects by volcanic mood-swings, but here the dynamic contrasts were kept half under wraps. And one remembered that Brendel is now 77.
When he came back after the interval, it was with the majestic sonata that was Schubert's farewell to life. And here he was transformed. As the opening movement smouldered and burst into flame, Brendel seemed to be completely inside it: the complex structure held together weightlessly, the internal melodies sang out with passion.
The Adagio was stately and inward-turning, the Scherzo was pearlised, and the final Allegro – repeatedly punctuated by that strange bare octave like a question mark – felt like a joyful canter home.
We were all on our feet to cheer Brendel, and for encores he gave us three lovely memories to go away with: the slow movement of Bach's Italian Concerto, a pure stream of melody; a gentle rumination by Liszt; and finally – what else? – Schubert's exquisite Impromptu in G flat. From now on, we will only have his records.Reuse content