Prom 43: Philharmonia Orchestra / Dohnanyi / Brendel, Royal Albert, London

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The Independent Culture

This concert began with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in its single Prom this season, on good form in Brahms's Third Symphony.

This concert began with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in its single Prom this season, on good form in Brahms's Third Symphony. Only very occasional moments of smudged ensemble and fluffed horn notes spoiled an account of great subtlety. Dohnanyi shaped the first movement's second subject, for instance, with understated mastery. Yet this performance lacked intensity or risk. It was warm, comforting; too safe. But it was the second half of the programme for which a full Albert Hall crowd had come. Or rather, it was Alfred Brendel's farewell Proms performance, for which occasion he had chosen Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto.

Before that, though, we had Brendel the poet. The texts selected by Harrison Birtwistle for his Three Brendel Settings, here receiving its world premiere, seem to me rather pedestrian and uncertain in tone. But Birtwistle's music focuses each one with something of his typical flair to offer a simple and satisfactory slow-fast-slow sequence, and the baritone William Dazeley, a Birtwistle specialist, sang them with skill, though neither these settings' mini-dramas nor their words were projected to maximum effect. And surely the second setting, in which the composer finds the opportunity to indulge his rather peculiar sheep fetish, should be much funnier than it seemed here.

As Nicholas Kenyon reminded us in a concluding presentation speech, Brendel is not retiring, even from concerto appearances; he merely wishes, at 73, not to face the microphones, as well as audiences, in live performances any more. For announcing this, he received an amount of publicity that was remarkable - and in a way heartening in our whizzkid-obsessed culture - for the doyen of a type of Central European intellectual musician whose time seems past.

This "Emperor" account showed, in occasional finger slips and, if I'm not mistaken, a brief lapse of memory near the start of the third movement, why Brendel is nervous of those microphones. Yet these scarcely detracted from a reading that demonstrated so many of this much-loved pianist's insights in such core repertoire. A myriad of small details could be savoured here, such as the little lefthand runs in the first movement, shaped to within an inch of caricature; the naughty suggestion of syncopation in the otherwise beautifully effortless flow of the slow movement; and the impetuous way in which he handled the finale's main theme as it is prefigured in the transition from the second movement to the third.

Yet nowhere did one feel that such details were being sacrificed to the symphonic whole. In the second movement, Brendel and Dohnanyi - who is surely a peerless orchestral accompanist - shaped and coloured an unbroken line. And the finale's rather sedate tempo paid off all the way in everything from the deft characterisation of the main theme to the space it helped create for the typically playful touch Brendel applied to the concerto's very end.

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