About twenty five years ago during my study years, I had the opportunity to see Alfred Brendel in recital performing Beethoven. I had a vague understanding through recordings what I might hear, but I was not prepared for the possibility that I was going to be involved in a seance. Among other pieces, Brendel performed a late Beethoven piano sonata. It was during this piece he became simply transfixed and other worldly. Several minutes into the central movement, a listener developed an annoying recurrent muffled cough in the hushed recital hall. The sublimity of Brendel’s face on stage began to reveal a series of anguished contortions, as if he was being pulled from a deep dark place into blinding light. After several moments, he stopped playing, to the astonishment of the audience, and turned to the horrified cougher with an intense expression, then said, he could not channel Beethoven and play it the way the master wanted, and the audience deserved, unless the dissonance from the audience stopped.
The coughing stopped, and the sublimity returned.
No one can play Beethoven like Alfred Brendel, and the means to the answer was on the stage that night. Brendel plays Beethoven like a re-incarnated Beethoven, and it may well be that he is capable of channeling the master composer’s spirit directly into his body and soul. To hear Brendel in recital is likely the closest you will ever get to hearing Beethoven himself perform his works at the height of his prowess in Vienna in 1800. Frankly, you probably will never know how Beethoven must sound until you hear Brendel perform Beethoven. The perfect phrasing, the precise articulation, and the masterful but limited use of the pedal makes a Brendel interpretation of a Beethoven sonata not a performance but rather, a re-creation.
Alfred Brendel was born in 1933 in the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, born in the Czech Republic, moving to Croatia at an early age and eventually settling Graz, Austria. He showed early musical talent,but the horror of WWII swept away any capacity for rigorous formal training. It may well be that his self taught style in the absence of overbearing influence of piano teachers may well be the means by which Brendel has maintained the purity of the compositions in his performance. Regardless of formal instruction, Brendel’s performance genius particularly for the classical masters of his homeland, Mozart, Schubert, and most specifically, Beethoven was evident in the years after the war and through his long career since until his performance retirement in 2008.
Interpreters of Beethoven are particularly cherished for their ability to remind every one of the unique olympian genius of Beethoven. In the first half of the twentieth century, the ultimate interpreter was recognized to be Artur Schnabel, and there has been a need by music critics ever since to use Schnabel’s intense concentration on the Beethoven works as the standard by which to evaluate all others. We have only the older recordings by which to judge Schnabel, but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we have an extensive performance record of high fidelity by which to immerse ourselves in the wonders of a Brendel performance.
Two Beethoven creations of Brendel frame this performer’s mastery well. The first is the most beautiful and elevating seven and a half minutes of music in the classical literature, Beethoven’s Adagio movement from his epic ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto No.5. The second, Brendel’s recital performance of Beethoven Sonata No.32. The concerto performance will make you cry a little as you feel Beethoven reaching for the essence of human beauty at a time of enveloping hearing loss, but the Sonata will leave you stunned, as you realize Brendel is reaching through time and space, and bringing Beethoven physically through his hands onto the piano, to the everlasting wonderment and joy, of us all…