Saturday, January 30, 2016

Brendel plays Schubert - Live

Alfred Brendel - An all-Schubert recital

I remember listening to a recording of Brendel playing the Hammerklavier, live, and suddenly realising what it was like. It was like someone who knows a cathedral like the back of their hand, taking you on a tour. Now, the problem with tour guides is that they tend to get lost in the detail or lost in personal anecdotes. The best guides are the ones who point out the relevant detail but always in the context of building up a picture of the whole. And that's what Brendel was doing. In the first movement, he slowed fractionally and created just a little emphasis around the modulations that act like gigantic hinges in the movement's structure. They don't just herald the arrival of new material – pointing that out would be rather silly – but they also are the points of inflection, the points where the small-scale and the large scale intersect. I was delighted to feel that I 'got' something about the large-scale shape of the sonata that I had hitherto missed.

Prior to that, I had liked Brendel but perhaps not listened to him with the same attention. Nothing striking about his playing, I thought. And I still think so. The trick is to lead the listener without seeming to dictate what they ought to be listening to. They're listening to the music – obvious. 

And I share Brendel's profound disgust at the playing of Glenn Gould, a man whose ego dominated his every note. Gould's Bach is a man obsessed with the idea that his Bach is The Bach, giving you a note-by-note lecture. It's like being trapped in a lift with a trainspotter. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Indeed, I was once so enraged by the sound of Gould playing one of the French Suites that I learned the whole thing to efface the memory! 

Brendel, showing his estimate of the musical stature of Glenn Gould

And, of course, I read with pleasure Brendel's essays on music. I treasure them. Like his keyboard playing, they are accomplishments that do not boast. 

Which brings me to this wonderful Schubert recital. It was recently rebroadcast by Radio 4 and thus captured in splendid sound. (Digression : I wish major recording companies would use radio engineers for their piano recordings – I am fed up hearing the sounds of the piano mechanism and the glaring, dimensionless sound that the likes of Decca and DG produce. A radio engineer knows how to capture a performance! Or at least, European ones do…)

Like the Hammerklavier, Schubert's unfinished sonata known as the Reliquie poses awful problems for the performer. Unlike most of the unfinished sonatas, there are reasons to believe that Schubert just abandoned the sonata, and the completion of the scherzo has been a puzzle that many people have tried to solve. And, IMO, the awkwardness of the solutions suggest that Schubert realised that the movement couldn't be completed as he had originally envisaged it. What we are left with is a fascinating score – perhaps the most unpianistic of Schubert's works. There are times when he seems to struggle to get a piano sound that will embody his ideas. And, like the Hammerklavier, the first movement is built around a bold harmonic scheme that requires a lot of skill to make seem logical. 

It's the sort of thing that Brendel excels at. If you've never warmed to the sonata, now is the time to give it another chance. Brendel performs the two completed movements only, but they emerge with a coherence that I find remarkable. I gave up learning this sonata many years ago, and I find myself drifting towards the music cabinet…

In fact, the cathedral analogy isn't entirely accurate here. I remember waking up one morning with a sudden sense of how to play the first impromptu of the D935 set. I had never been able to cope with the endless expansion of the major section. It seemed completely out of scale with the rest of the movement. The realisation I had was simple: this isn't architecture, it's narrative. Each episode of the story has to be allowed to take its own time, and the art of the storyteller is to pace it so that nothings seems to linger too long. This is, I think, where Brendel's Schubert scores. A storyteller's perfect sense of the balance between incident and narrative. 

I've been listening to this recital with pleasure these last few days. It's got that sense of wholeness that you get from a live performance by a performer who has a really all-encompassing vision of the music as well as an utter command of the notes. True, you find yourself thinking "Wow – Schubert!" rather than "Wow – Brendel", but that's the mark of a really fine player, isn't it?

01 Moments musicaux D.780, op.94
02 Fantasie for piano D.760, op.15 in C _Wanderer-Fantasie_
03 Sonate for piano, D.840 in C _Reliquie_ (unfinished)
04 Piano Sonata in A minor, D 784 Op Posth 143
05 Deutsche Taenze D790, Op Posth 171 - No 1

MP3, 256 kbs, edited losslessly