Alfred Brendel, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A recital by the pianist Alfred Brendel is quite unlike any other experience in the field of music. Nowadays, he usually programmes works of modest difficulty, playable by many people in his large audience, and he avoids any impression of dazzling virtuosity.

Yet there is a rightness, a wisdom, a density of meaning in everything he does. Much of this is negative; just as Brendel does not play grand virtuoso pieces, so he does not project, either technically or expressively. The music remains inward, studious, cool. Somehow, he convinces you that this is the only way, the obvious way to play the classical repertoire.

During the first half of his appearance at the Usher Hall, the house lights were turned off, leaving the pianist isolated in a single spotlight. It symbolised his musical spirit. When other players would be shaping, caressing, singing, reaching out to the listener - in the gentle theme of the first movement of Mozart's K331 Sonata, for example - he seemed lonely and thoughtful, like a kind of musical hermit. Even when he allowed himself a little ordinary emotion, as he did in the minor-key variation of the same movement, he seemed to be doing it for himself alone. "Here's how a young man might do it," he seems to say. The audience feels deeply involved, yet, in a sense, they might as well not be there.

The five Beethoven bagatelles with which he began were typical. There was lyricism, but it was not warm; stormy episodes, but they remained laconic; intense counterpoint, but it was bony and grim. He has certain personal tricks that stress the feeling of detachment. There is a light staccato, like the bouncing of a ping-pong ball. There is a hushed sotto voce, heard especially in the slow movement of Beethoven's Sonata in B flat, Op 22. There is sometimes a microsecond's pause before attacking a brilliant figure, as though gathering strength, just as you or I might do. Anything rather than give a feeling of superhuman dash and fluency, which would seem merely cheap.

Far from focusing on a famous showpiece, he built his programme around the little-known, unfinished C major Sonata, D840, of Schubert. This startlingly original essay, like Brendel's playing, is unlike anything else. The composer was evidently experimenting, taking perverse turnings, generating monsters. You understand why he was unable to finish it: such a level of inventive tension might lead to madness.

Yet Brendel was able to make it sound closely reasoned. Like every great player, he makes you feel his interpretation is the only one possible. It just seems simple, inevitable; an evening with a Zen master.