- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What immediately distinguishes pianist Alfred Brendel’s performances from the work of other soloists is the remarkable bel canto effect he achieves without apparent effort. Mr. Brendel never fails to highlight the flowing, melodic line in each piece, bringing it in above the accompaniment and producing an effect not unlike that of an opera singer in recital.

In his Monday evening recital at Strathmore, billed as the final U.S. performance of his farewell tour, Mr. Brendel, 77, offered the packed house what they had come to hear — an unusual program of mostly offbeat works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Mr. Brendel’s playing is sometimes criticized as “dry.” However, the essence of what we call “classical” music is that, like a classic poem or novel, each successive hearing of a given work results in deeper revelations.

That’s what Mr. Brendel’s devoted fans have come to hear and explore with him over his long career — thoughtful, challenging performances devoid of cheap showmanship.

Mr. Brendel opened the evening with an almost reverential performance of Haydn’s infrequently heard Variations in F Minor. It’s essentially a theme and variations, a relatively somber work that some surmise memorializes the sudden passing of a young woman with whom the composer had a platonic friendship.

This was followed by Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494. Its central adagio is notable for its unexpected, almost modernistic dissonance and abrupt starts and stops. As a young piano student, this writer attempted many times to make sense of this movement, but its musical landscape seemed to defy decoding. Mr. Brendel, however, discovered the story hidden within, revealing an impatient Mozart clearly straining to challenge and move past the musical conventions of his time.

Also refreshingly different was Mr. Brendel’s understated performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1. Paired under the same opus number as the composer’s popular “Moonlight” Sonata, this work, like its better-known relative, is labeled as an experiment: “quasi una fantasia” or “something like a fantasy.” Played in four movements essentially without pause, this surprisingly brief but interesting work begins and concludes with a quietly stated theme that is accorded furtive development. Again, though, Mr. Brendel capably unified all the work’s melodic strands into a satisfying musical story.

Mr. Brendel ended his program with a distinguished, lyrical performance of Schubert’s huge Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Penned in the composer’s final year before his tragic death at a youthful 31, the sonata carries with it all the poignancy and longing that one might expect in such a twilight work.

Mournful strains alternate with playful moments in the sonata, as if the composer Beethoven, sonata in e-flat major, were reviewing his short time on the planet in flashback. Mr. Brendel seemed to channel the composer’s emotions directly to his 21st-century audience in an imaginative interpretation only slightly marred by some imprecise passage work in the finale.

Mr. Brendel wrapped up the evening with three brief encores, the second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto BWV 971; Liszt’s “Au Lac de Wallenstadt” from his “Annees de Pelerinage” (“Years of Pilgrimage”); and the second of Schubert’s Impromptus from Op. 142 (D.935). Each received a standing ovation from his appreciative fans, obviously pleased to be present at the concluding moments of his brilliant career — although the pianist promises to remain active in the future on the lecture circuit as well as to pursue his lifelong interest in poetry.

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