Many conservatory students could have played the finale of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata at greater volume and with more speed than Alfred Brendel did at his all-Beethoven recital Wednesday at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
About pianistic technique, however, Brendel has always modestly maintained that he "has enough." And that was certainly true for most of the trip on which Brendel took his listeners. The pianist has studied this music all his life -- he has recorded the 32 sonatas twice and is about to begin a third recording cycle -- and intelligence, wisdom and imagination shone in everything he did.
There was, first of all, the program: a first half that consisted of the three sonatas of opus 26 and 27 and a second half that contained the two sonatas of opus 54 and opus 53 (the "Waldstein"). When Rudolf Serkin used to put several sonatas on a program, the reason was simply that he wanted to play them; with Brendel, there's always an underlying design. The three sonatas in the first half were related by the happenstance that the composer was reinventing the piano sonata by flexing the constraints of classical form. The A-flat sonata of opus 26 doesn't contain a single movement in sonata form and the composer labeled the two sonatas of opus 27 as "quasi una Fantasia" ("almost like a fantasy"). Moreover, the two-movement sonata of opus 54 that opened the second half of the program ends with a mystically joyous moto perpetuo strikingly similar to the conclusion of opus 26. And the mighty "Waldstein" -- with its free-ranging architecture and its joyous simplicity -- represents the triumphal culmination of the composer's experiments in sonata form up to that time.
Brendel brought this design to life compellingly. In the scherzo of opus 26, for example, he was able to realize the composer's allegro molto marking through unerring sense of rhythm and attention to melodic contour instead of mere speed. Brendel captured elusively personal, almost childlike expression of the E-flat sonata of opus 27. And the opening of the "Moonlight" made its hypnotic effect not through sentimentality but through restrained eloquence, through Brendel's ability to sustain a singing tone at the quietest dynamic levels.
Brendel brought out all of the quizzical humor and brazen effrontery of the opus 54 sonata and disappointed only in the "Waldstein." This great musician is simply not a great pianist, and the "Waldstein" is one of the great exercises in keyboard virtuosity. There were many beautiful things in Brendel's performance, but also too many moments -- such as the awkward glissando octaves in the work's prestissimo coda -- that made one uncomfortably aware of the pianist's technical limitations.