Alfred Brendel, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk

Alfred Brendel's cerebral pianism seems to inhabit a different musical universe from the worldly concerns of light-heartedness or humour. But his Aldeburgh festival recital explored the edges of the classical tradition, with a programme of unfinished works, fragments, and wit. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his selection of Beethoven's Bagatelles, the miraculous miniatures that form an alternative musical testament to the grandiose statements of his sonatas.

The pieces may be small, but the musical questions they ask are profound, as Beethoven experiments with unique forms, harmonies, and themes. In the G minor Bagatelle, Op 126 no 2, the fabric of the music was torn apart by a bizarre series of pauses, interruptions, and contrasts. The material of the main theme exploded into a handful of fragments, strewn over the compass of the keyboard, and when the music finally regained its composure, a dissonant bassline disturbed the structure once again. The B minor Bagatelle, from the same set, began as a game between wildly contrasted themes but became a searching essay in continuity and development. Brendel brilliantly turned these eccentric pieces into elemental experiences, finding a mysterious coherence in their wit and brevity.

After these quixotic episodes, the whole programme was imbued with a spirit of unpredictability and fantasy. Even Mozart's A major sonata sounded structurally unhinged, and Brendel gave its famous Turkish finale a desperate energy. Two of Beethoven's early Rondos were elaborate improvisations, as Brendel gilded the simplest of themes with delicate ornamentation, and he found the same spontaneity in Beethoven's early B flat major sonata, Op 22.

But it was Schubert's C major Sonata, Reliquie, that produced Brendel's most impressive and reflective performance. Schubert only completed the first two movements, but this fascinating torso is a glimpse of a world of expressive extremes. The first theme of the opening movement suggested stability and grandiloquence, but the structure suddenly collapsed into a darker, minor-key region for the second theme. Brendel's performance of the whole movement was precariously balanced between minor and major, darkness and light. The second movement amplified these contrasts: even its main theme was infected with a stabbing dissonance, and Brendel gave the huge climax a tragic, funereal power. The absence of a third movement or finale heightened the effect of these images of ambiguity, and Brendel made an eloquent case for the work's incompleteness, as if the drama could only be expressed by not being resolved.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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