Brendel bows out: Master quits stage with shrug and smile

Alfred Brendel, one of the greatest pianists of his, or any, age sat down to play in public for the last time on Thursday

At 8.13pm on Thursday night, one of the greatest pianists of his, or any, age sat down to play in public for the last time. Alfred Brendel spread his tails behind him, adjusted the stool and, for the final time, beamed his readiness to the conductor.

Two weeks before his 78th birthday, he was ready to bring down the final curtain while still at something like the peak of his powers. To choose such a moment of finality is, for a pianist, a comparatively rare thing. Arthritis gets some in the end; others die in harness; for some, the phone gradually stops ringing. Brendel decided he would rather be in control of the moment. His chosen exit was characteristic. Not for him a last Prospero-style pronouncement - not Beethoven's Op 111 or Schubert's D960, but instead, a youthful Mozart piano concerto, K271 in E flat.

And he chose the Musikverein in Vienna, that gilded, white-tied and chandeliered temple to high culture. Brendel may love living in London, but it was to Vienna that he returned to mark the journey that had begun 60 years previously, 90 miles away in Graz. He has played in this hall more than 120 times during those years: it was here that it had to end.

Brendel has described this Mozart concerto as "a wonder of the world", quoting Busoni, who said that it is both "as young as a youth" and "as wise as an old man". The first of the piece's startling breaks with tradition is that the piano enters in the second bar, before the orchestra has had a chance to describe the landscape. Brendel kept his hands on his lap for the first bar and a half, as if trying to trick even this most knowing of audiences. It was a typical moment of pure theatre.

The performance was everything we have come to expect of Brendel: technically assured and unshowy; surprising in both small and large ways; sensitive and intensely thoughtful. If the occasion got to him at all, it showed only in the quiet passages, when he vocally willed himself to capture the pathos, the flashes of humour and the serene beauty of the melodic line.

The slow movement was an extended dialogue with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of his 83-year-old friend Sir Charles Mackerras - the piano sometimes passive, sometimes urgently assertive, sometimes imploring and plaintive. Some may have expected a playful finale, but we didn't get it. There was a tone of gentle, elegiac acceptance; though a hint, too, of not wanting the music to end quite yet.

Nor did it. The hall rose to thunder out such respect that Brendel returned to play the haunting arrangement by Busoni of Bach's chorale Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland. The orchestra and audience listened in total silence, then demanded more. Brendel shrugged. He waved a coquettish goodbye. He crossed his arms over his heart and bowed.

After half a dozen returns, he played - for one last time - Liszt's Au Lac de Wallenstadt. In an irony that would not have escaped him (he has written a poem on the subject), he played to the accompaniment of a ghostly mobile phone ringtone for a few bars.

He had first played Liszt in this hall 51 years ago. These last minutes marked not only the end of his career, but the severing of the thread that links generations of the great instrumentalists.

At the end of all the appplause - perhaps 20 minutes in all - Brendel smiled with what looked like a surge of relief and gestured down into the audience, which included all four of his significant pupils: Kit Armstrong, Imogen Cooper, Paul Lewis and Till Fellner. He seemed to be saying, "That's me. Now it's over to you." And so the baton was passed on to the next generation. For Brendel, the rest is - in public, at least - silence.


Alan Rusbridger in Vienna

The GuardianTramp

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