Alfred Brendel 70th Birthday Concert, Royal Festival Hall, London

Brendel's poems set to music
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The Independent Culture

Alfred Brendel certainly leads a full life. He writes – both poetry and prose – and he's one of the few famous musicians regularly to be seen at other people's concerts and to keep up with new music. Although for many years he has stuck to playing the classics, the final concert on Saturday celebrating Brendel's 70th birthday earlier this year featured three settings of his poetry for baritone and orchestra, specially commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra and their conductor Christoph von Dohn- anyi. Since the baritone soloist Matthias Goerne was indis-posed, they were sung individ- ually by David Wilson Johnson, Christopher Maltman and Roderick Williams.

Birtwistle's "There is something between us" was chilly, bleak and slow, but also haunting, in harmony with a mysterious and serious poem about "a fleeting moment of truth". Brahms II – the setting in German by Thomas Adès – was agitated, even stormy, countering Brendel's irreverent humour with covert musical references including one to the Four Serious Songs, though its overall style was rather like Alban Berg. Probably the most difficult of the three, it was impressively sung by Christopher Maltman. Roderick Williams had the most thankless part in Berio's Tritsch-Tratsch (Alois). With such bald vocal writing against relentlessly metrical orchestral music, it seemed to lack strong character.

The original plan for Brendel to play Schumann's Piano Concerto and an early one by Mozart was changed – unfortunately, because Brendel rarely plays Schumann and has some good ideas about the concerto, correcting some prevailing false traditions. Instead, we heard Mozart's earliest "great" concerto, in E flat, K271, and the last and grandest of his C major concertos, K503. Brendel played the first two movements of the E flat quite perfectly, then almost fell over himself in a breathless rush through the finale – with Mozart's copious alternatives for cadenzas and lead-ins (Brendel always chose the second), the solo part is almost too much of a good thing.

In K503, a work with much plainer themes and a surprisingly perfunctory first movement development, he offered a veritable harvest in his own idiomatic cadenza, and mercifully fleshed out the more skeletal bars of the middle movement. His crisp d'étaché playing in the finale was also nicely judged.

It must be said, though, that the Philharmonia Orchestra was not always as tidy. They saved most of their energy for Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, which got a really brilliant performance in which individual players as well as sections vied with each other in well-aimed efforts to amaze. If it was vulgar and outrageous, then so was the subject, and it was certainly thrilling.

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