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MUSIC REVIEW : Beethoven Speaks Through Brendel


Alfred Brendel. The Beethoven sonatas. There's something about this combination that goes out like a call from Mt. Olympus.

It doesn't matter how many times the Austrian pianist chooses to survey the famous 32 or a sampler thereof, as he did Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the first of two recitals. One attends knowing that the spirit of this inexhaustible music will be summoned and probably a good deal more.

Indeed, it was. Brendel's brand of pianism--with its high-mindedness and depth of conviction, its clarity of design and purpose--projected everywhere. Some previous quibbles, that his scholarly mien robs the music of its soul, for instance, or that his tone is too plain and uninflected, had to be dismissed Sunday.

For the case he made in this recital of the three Opus 31 sonatas and the late-period A-major Sonata, Opus 101 was an entirely eloquent one. It had none of the self-absorbed, hermetic tinkering that the music-busting insurrectionists like to propose.

Nor does it come as a surprise that Brendel's lifelong engagement with the Beethoven cycle --his writings and analysis, his rethinking and reworking--would reveal its substance impressively.

Especially in the sparse passages of the slow movements, those places where one can hear Beethoven beseeching the heavens, the pianist became a voice delivering a line, not an instrumentalist. He might have been Laurence Olivier, so heartfelt were his utterances, so precisely vehement his leave-taking, so acutely phrased his verdicts.


With this as a goal, an artist would not necessarily give beauty of tone equal importance. Although Brendel leaves the matter of timbral charm, per se, to others, the playing was not dry as sometimes remembered.

At any rate, his fingers were equal to any demand. And those demands, not just the ones involved in the thornier passagework, had to do with elucidating the whole spectrum of human emotion.

Brendel let us know emphatically what and where that was. In the G-major Sonata of Opus 31 he established a hurdy-gurdy character with his bright tone and energetic attack but made the change from flippancy to ominous darkness with chilling drama.

In the "Tempest" his rhythmic engagement was compelling, but beyond that he always carved a space for sudden important announcements. Elements of lightheartedness shone through in the E-flat Sonata (Opus 31), with the Scherzo's sixteenth-notes rendered with great clarity.

To the A-major Sonata (Opus 101) Brendel brought a purified lyricism, replete with the tenderest inflections. Perhaps contrary to expectations in this ambitious display, he played a bagatelle as an encore.

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