MUSIC / Fit to play for England: Wadham Sutton on Brendel back on form

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The Independent Culture
Last April Alfred Brendel announced that he was taking a complete break from public performance to counter a troublesome bout of tendonitis. His present tour, and a series of concerts in the Festival Hall, are designed to mark his recovery. On Sunday an enthusiastic audience gathered in Newcastle's City Hall to hear him cast his spell.

The work on offer was the Schumann Piano Concerto - not one of the most virtuosic in the repertoire, but one in which he was able to display his innate feel for the crucial balance between intellect and emotion. Antony Hopkins once described this concerto as the Romantic equivalent of Beethoven's Fourth, and that was how Brendel treated it. There were no exaggerated effects and he never once stole the orchestra's rightful thunder. The balance was perfectly judged.

Yet the performance was not without blemish. An uncomfortable splodge marred Brendel's opening flourish and a brief memory lapse soon afterwards gave rise to several bars of admittedly impressive free improvisation. More than once soloist and orchestra drifted out of phase. But these imperfections counted for little in the context of a well- moulded reading. Brendel's touch, as always, was impeccable, drawing from a tired and overworked piano a surprising range of dynamics, varying the tone to suit the background as naturally as a chameleon changes its colour. Subsidiary motifs, especially in the bass register, were given a telling prominence and there was a firm start to the dialogue in the central intermezzo.

Halfway through the finale, both soloist and orchestra inexplicably pepped up the tempo and took off at a speed which would have astonished Schumann. On what authority, one wonders. But a Brendel performance with a few flaws and unexplained liberties is more to be treasured than a safely predictable one from a lesser hand. Few can rival him at getting behind the printed notes to the crux of the composer's meaning.

The Northern Sinfonia began the concert with Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 2, started in 1906, put aside for years, and eventually completed in 1940. Much had happened to Schoenberg's compositional practices in those intervening years, and it says something for him that he managed to maintain continuity of style throughout the work's two movements. Heinrich Schiff conducted an agreeable account, bringing out the long lines and the over- ripe Romanticism while super- imposing the sometimes spiky motifs with conviction.

The remaining work was Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, played with plenty of light and shade, the strings in the first movement bringing great vitality to their chattering accompaniments. The andante may have been inspired by a religious procession which Mendelssohn saw in Naples, though Schiff's pace was decidedly up-tempo, converting a sedate walk into something like a canter and depriving this generally headlong symphony of its intended point of repose.