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No Love Lost

Whatever relationship Alfred Brendel has to the music he plays, passion has never seemed part of it. The effect can be positively chilling.

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Mismatched: Brendel accompanies Matthias Georne at Carnegie Hall.  

What musician, no matter how famous, would not leap at the chance to be featured in a Carnegie Hall showcase with all the trimmings? Nothing so mundane as a single concert, mind you, but a series of events that allows the artist himself to set the agenda, present his musical profile in the best possible light, and allow the rest of us to admire him from every conceivable angle. Such flattering offers cannot be refused, and Carnegie is now tendering them with unexpected generosity. Alfred Brendel has just completed a monthlong residency in the hall, and next season the multiple talents of Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and Maurizio Pollini will all be on display in a variety of contexts.

If there were facets of Brendel's heart, mind, and musical priorities left unexplored by the time he left town, only this polymath himself knows what they could possibly be. Over the course of seven concerts, the pianist gave two solo recitals, accompanied baritone Matthias Goerne in a pair of all-Schubert lieder programs, participated in an evening of chamber music by Mozart, played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and read excerpts from his latest book of nonsense verse. Beyond that, I've heard rumors that Brendel has made his fourth recorded cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos, this time with Simon Rattle conducting.

I managed to squeeze in four of the Carnegie Hall events, although perhaps more ardent Brendelphiles were able to arrange their schedules to attend everything -- the problem with festival projects of this sort is simply finding the time to take full advantage of them. I had hoped that the concerts would finally convert me into a believer, having never acquired a taste for this musician's special persona, but no such luck. Brendel continues to baffle me: His is a sober, lucid, brainy, even challenging musical intelligence, but one wedded to a dry-as-dust musical spirit. Many are apparently not bothered by the lack of color and suppleness in his playing, his brittle tone, an austere approach that verges on pedantry, and an almost obsessive concern with organization. Many, in fact, seem to relish these qualities, or at least give rubber-stamp approval without bothering to listen very hard -- at 68, Brendel is no longer the cult figure of yore but a grand old man of the piano who has survived to reach the enviable status of icon.

Brendel's first solo recital was actually built around an interesting theme, although no program notes called attention to the fact and the performances scarcely suggested it. He played five deceptively innocent scores by four masters: Haydn's E minor Sonata, Mozart's A minor Rondo and C minor Fantasia, Schubert's Four Impromptus (D. 935), and Schumann's Kinderszenen. In these works, I think, the composers were consciously aiming for simplicity with no loss of profundity, the sort of vitamin-rich but accessible fare that piano teachers once upon a time assigned to their more advanced pupils. I played them myself when I was around 12 -- not with Brendel's technical polish and musical sophistication, of course, but I hope with more warmth and heart. Watching Brendel peck at these beguiling yet searching pieces, calling attention to details like a professor with a pointer at the blackboard while draining away all of the music's probing lyricism and childlike wonder, was positively chilling.

The two Schubert evenings with Matthias Goerne featured the Schwanengesang and Winterreise cycles, along with several of the composer's other late songs. Again, the performances left me as much puzzled as disappointed. Brendel and Goerne apparently enjoy making music together, but I can't imagine why -- I've seldom heard two more mismatched temperaments collaborate in Schubert lieder. Goerne is no less thoughtful than Brendel, but he is a much more emotionally engaged interpreter, whose involvement with a song results in the weaving, nose-pulling, goggle-eyed stares, and other mannerisms that some find so irritating. They don't bother me, especially when I'm hearing Schubert sung by a voice of such extraordinary dynamic range, technical control, coloristic imagination, and deep-centered beauty. Brendel, on the other hand, presented the piano parts in his customary bleak way, clothing the songs in an expressive straitjacket completely at odds with Goerne's fluid vocalism.

The all-Mozart chamber concert seemed marginally less dispiriting, in part due to the infectious enthusiasm of the four young British string players Brendel had brought with him to Carnegie Hall (including his cellist son, Adrian). In addition to the composer's two piano quartets, the musicians gave a sparkling rendition of the K. 414 Piano Concerto, a rare opportunity to hear this familiar score in its alternate chamber guise. At the very least, the performances exemplified one of Brendel's wisest aphorisms: "If Haydn surprises you with the unexpected, then Mozart manages to surprise you with the expected." If only this pianist communicated as effectively with notes as he does with words.


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