Farewell Notes

Last Concerts for Alfred Brendel and the Alban Berg Quartet

On The Town | Daniel Rieppel | July / August 2008

Alfred Brendel at the keys - one of the the greatest pianists of the 20th century (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Alfred Brendel at the Musikverein

Alfred Brendel is emblematic of Viennese piano playing, although he actually spent very little time living here.  His repertoire, and indeed his artistic reputation, has been carefully cultivated to represent the absolute core of the Austrian tradition – of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, with occasional forays into Bach, Brahms and Bartok and a studied but convincing advocacy of Franz Liszt’s music.

In many ways, Brendel has succeeded in wresting control of this repertoire from the "super-virtuosi" of America and Russia, the Artur Rubensteins or Vladimir Horowitzes, and placed Liszt back into the Central European context that had produced him.  He was a darling of his age, and iconography of the time reveled in depicting Liszt as a young boy receiving his blessing from Beethoven himself.

It was with these four urtypisch Viennese composers that Brendel ended his solo recital career at the Musikverein on Apr. 29, performing Haydn’s doleful F minor Variations, Mozart’s sparkling F Major Sonata, the Sonata quasi un Fantasia by Beethoven (the less-famous companion of his "Moonlight" sonata of the same opus number) and the ultimate "Adieu" composition, Schubert’s magisterial Sonata in B-flat Major, the composer’s last essay in this genre.

This was an evening to remember, a gloriously testimony to Brendel’s immaculate pianism – the rounded phrases, unmistakable line, the weave of contrapuntal ideas meshing into tapestry of civilized musical conversation.  This is Brendel’s world, where even the most passionate outbursts must be subsumed into the formal outlines and cultural Raum of their origin.

After the intermission, Brendel came back on stage as if a new man, reinvigorated by the successful first half, to give us a freshly muscular reading of the Schubert.  It was remarkable – the hesitant joy of the first movement, the despairing hollows explored in the justifiably famous second movement and the almost giddy energy of the final two movements delivered a more than ceremonial ending to an extraordinary career – the final B-flat octave rang with the defiant tone of an aging, yet still potent lion.


Alban Berg Quartet at the Konzerthaus

The Alban Berg Quartet has been playing together for more than 35 years, its close association with Vienna beginning in 1971 when it debuted at the famed Wiener Konzerthaus and where it had one of the longest running series in chamber music history.

It was particularly fitting then, that they should say "Lebe wohl" to their adoring Viennese public in the hall where it all began, the Grosser Saal of the Konzerthaus, to a packed audience.

The four members of the quartet—Günter Pichler (1st violin), Gerhard Schulz (2nd violin), Isabel Charisius (viola) and Valentin Erben (cello)—performed together with a lifetime of musical experience behind them, although not without the telling physical frailty that is the hazard of every live performance.

It was an all-Schubert program, and both the larger works drew from long-standing friends of the quartet:  Schubert’s famed Trout Quintet with pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, with Pichler as the single violin,  and Alois Posch on double bass and the great C Major String Quintet with the peripatetic Heinrich Schiff on second cello.  Although written by the same composer, we hear in them two different "Schuberts"— in the Trout Quintet, we hear the amiable, gemütlich and Heuriger-loving Schubert (a companion commented that the performance lacked only a glass of Gruner Veltliner in every hand!) and in the String Quintet (D 956), the Schubert whose lingering lyricism seems to wring all possible beauty from each limpid melodic idea of this truly "late" work.

Although one of the very greatest chamber groups before the world today – uncanny masters of ensemble playing, despite a rather relaxed stage manner – there were numerous intonation problems, mostly from the first violin.  One can only hazard the guess that even this supremely accomplished musician has his good, less good and better days.

These vagaries during the first half were immediately dispelled and forgotten, however, in a transcendent interpretation of the C Major Quintet, Schubert’s most eloquent chamber work in the second half.  The rapturous second movement, which could melt Dante’s Satan in the 9th ring of Hell and, once again, reduced this writer to tears, proving that heavenly utterances such as these sometimes need "heavenly length" for their divine proportions to be as deeply felt as there are profoundly created.

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