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Brendel Spreads Pianistic Calm

The beloved performer offers musical comfort in his program of Viennese classics at the Chandler.


Alfred Brendel looks a part when he walks onstage. His hair divides into tousled patches of gray. His manner appears purposeful yet slightly distracted. He could be a wise scholar, a trusted family physician, a poet.

In fact, the beloved pianist is something of each. He is a much published writer on music and other subjects. He is, as musician, a comfort giver--a pianist who these days concentrates on the familiar Viennese masters of the Classical and Romantic era and plays them with irresistible affection.

And for the last several years he has been an actual poet. Sandwiched between piano recitals at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Friday and the Irvine Barclay Theatre Sunday, he read his whimsical poetry Saturday night at the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery.

For Friday's recital at the Chandler, Brendel was in the business exclusively of providing musical assurance. His program was devoted to the big three Viennese classicists--Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. From his writings and interviews, it is clear that Brendel thinks about, and involves himself in, the world at large, in politics and culture. But here he seemed to need nothing more than to warmly embrace every lovable phrase in these three composers, and maybe an ever so slight bemusement.

The good news for Brendel's many fans--and they filled the Chandler--is that, at 71, the pianist seems in perfectly good shape technically. He has never been one of the big keyboard barnstormers, but he has enough technique to decorate a Haydn sonata with gracefully uplifting decorations, which he did with the one in G minor that opened the program. In Mozart's weighty D-minor Fantasy, he plumbed depths with a rich and concentrated tone, and he played Mozart's A-minor Sonata with constrained passion, its middle movement sumptuously smooth. Every so often Brendel seemed on the verge of lingering, too entranced by a cadence or turn of phrase to let it go but he always managed to stop just short of mannerism.

These are pieces meant for an intimate space, and that is how Brendel played them, which also meant a certain straining for an audience in a large hall without a strong acoustical presence. Even in Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations, Brendel seemed more inclined to find delicate wonder in the composer's invention than to exult in the variations' extravagant range of character.

Each one of these 33 variations is a marvel of wit and wonder, and, in two new recordings, the extraordinary young pianists Olli Mustonen and Piotr Anderszewski play them as if they are pulling us out of chairs and taking us on great escapades. Another recent recording of the variations, by Maurizio Pollini, is a great intellectual venture. Brendel, on the other hand, is the avuncular Beethovenian, as if reading to us about these pianistic exploits from his easy chair.

That is not to say his performance lacked immediacy or power. He could be surprisingly forceful, and there were touches of wry humor. He has thought about this great work deeply, and though other pianists can be more interesting here and there, he finds something satisfying in its every instance. I particularly enjoyed the roundness he brought to the contrapuntal lines in the 32nd variation and the delicate way he seemed to drift off into outer space with the visionary closing page.

The enraptured audience tried hard for an encore. But Uncle Alfred has been around long enough to know when it is time to close the book.

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