Classical Music: Old age should burn and rave

Ventislav Yankoff / Alfred Brendel Wigmore Hall / Royal Festival Hall
Ventislav Yankoff /

Alfred Brendel

Wigmore Hall / Royal Festival Hall

Perhaps it's a superstition that long experience allows a pianist to be emotionally generous and unselfconscious. Yet it's hard to imagine any young player sinking himself in the music as Ventislav Yankoff did at the Wigmore Hall on Monday.

He wasn't very wise to choose Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, because although he did some inspired and spontaneous things with the varied Promenade refrain, too many of the actual Pictures required more speed and accuracy than he could muster. You had to ignore a lot of grunting and singing along in the rest of the programme, too, yet it was a real privilege to hear the first and last of Brahms's Opus 119 pieces unfolded so broadly, and with such a deep, mellow sound. The final Rhapsody, in particular, was gigantic.

If there was a sense of struggle, too, in Beethoven's last Sonata, Op 111, it was a positive quality, yielding that sense of do-or-die urgency, even within a spacious tempo, that makes the listener grip on to every event. For all its fudged details and less than discreet pedalling, this was a performance that had the real breath of greatness - like the conducting of the late Otto Klemperer. The occasional exaggerated emphasis was merely the body overreacting to the ardour of the spirit.

Yankoff won the Marguerite Long/Jacques Thibaud Competition 49 years ago, and was for many years a distinguished teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. There seem to be no recordings of him, at least not any available in this country, but it was good to see the BBC taping this recital for future broadcast.

Perhaps Yankoff's expansive warmth would have penetrated even the chilly acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall, where it's always a slight shock to hear how thin and small even a big Steinway sounds.

On Tuesday night Alfred Brendel filled the hall to celebrate 50 years since his first professional recital in Graz, Austria, with a programme after his own heart - though head might be more like it. By ending with Haydn's great E flat Sonata, he was making a point - for Haydn - and this was where he was heard at his most characteristic, stretching out the capricious contrasting idea in the first movement, and going for spiky brilliance in the finale.

Most of the first half was taken up with Schubert's spacious G major Sonata, which seemed bland rather than beguiling, and short on sensuous charm. Yet although Brendel's concentration seemed to slip in the second movement Andante, in the outer movements, his architectural sense and pacing were unimpeachable, and these are the qualities with which his many admirers no doubt felt satisfied. He gave them the slow movement of Mozart's A minor Sonata, K310, as an encore, and got a bottle of rare 1948 Armagnac in return.