A welcome coda to his towering recorded legacy.
Graham Rogers 2009
Recorded in Hanover and Vienna as the culmination of extensive farewell tours in 2008, these CDs capture the last ever public performances of one of the greatest and most well-loved pianists of our time, Alfred Brendel.
A peerless exponent of Mozart’s concertos, the 77-year-old chose to bow out defiantly with the youthful K.271 (instead of, say, the more autumnal K.595). The impression left after Brendel’s final UK appearance, a month earlier with the same work and conductor, was of age-belying ebullience; this performance is more elegiac. This is partly because the plush Vienna Philharmonic doesn’t respond as incisively as the Philharmonia did to Charles Mackerras’s direction, but is probably due more to Brendel’s state of mind: almost every note seems filled with poignant retrospection. This is, unmistakably, a final performance – the distillation of a lifetime’s experience and devotion.
The outer movements may not be as lively as on Brendel’s 1970s Philips recording with Neville Mariner, but this mature interpretation has unparalleled depth. The central Andantino has a rare intensity (without being over-romanticised), and Brendel conjures tone of remarkable beauty. Most spine-tingling is the ethereal minuet at the heart of the finale, rendered as a sublime dance of the spheres. The Viennese audience is not the quietest, and it’s an effort not to be distracted by Brendel’s grunting – but the reward is well worth it.
His vocalisations are less obtrusive in Hanover, as is the audience. The characteristically well-planned recital showcases composers with which Brendel has closest affinity. Mozart’s Sonata K.533/494 – of which Brendel says, with typical wry humour, he has had a “long courtship” – is penetrative, insightful, and flawlessly fluid. Haydn's F minor Variations are imbued with quiet emotion, helped by a silken touch; Beethoven's Op.27/1 balances tranquillity, animation and power.
A Brendel speciality, Schubert's mammoth final Sonata is the most substantial work here, with a heart-wrenching slow movement at its core. Propelled with graceful momentum, this valedictory account is more commanding than even his own previous recordings. Clearly Brendel retired while still at the top of his game. He will be greatly missed by concert-goers; this release is a welcome coda to his towering recorded legacy.