At 77, the eloquent Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel, who made his debut six decades ago, brings his concert career to a close this year. His farewell performance will be in Vienna in December. Meanwhile, he has been saying his goodbyes elsewhere, and, on Monday night, he played his final U.S. recital, an event that drew a packed and affectionate audience to the Music Center at Strathmore.
Presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society -- his 14th appearance for that organization since 1973 -- Brendel offered a sampling from his canon: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. This is the music he breathes, music he has explored from every angle. (Back in the dark ages of LPs, Brendel's numerous recordings on rock-bottom budget labels helped introduce many a budding classical music fan to this central repertoire.)
The Strathmore appearance reconfirmed the remarkable qualities of the Brendel touch -- a combination of carefully measured tone, superb clarity of articulation, total grasp of structure. Above all, supreme elegance.
At the risk of being heretical, I think a little shift in approach, a little more contrast here and there would not have hurt. Stylistically, everything was played more or less the same way, and within the same dynamic range (very soft to just short of weighty fortissimo), so that differences between the composers and what each was seeking from a keyboard blurred together.
That said, it was a privilege to be there, to hear playing of such rare beauty and refinement. Young pianists, ever anxious to show off digital and decibel skills, could learn so much from this man and this kind of pianism.
Brendel drew out the dark beauty of Haydn's Variations in F minor in compelling fashion. He deftly shaded the startling chromatic shifts in Mozart's F major Sonata (K.533/494) and made much of the rhythmic energy in Beethoven's E-flat major Sonata, Op. 27, No. 1. Schubert's final Sonata, in B-flat, a thing of exquisite poetry and unease, unfolded incisively, arrestingly.
There were three encores -- the middle movement of Bach's Italian Concerto, phrased with an affecting introspection; a wonderfully lyrical, lilting account of Liszt's Au lac de Wallenstadt; and more Schubert. The latter's A-flat major Impromptu from D. 935, like the B-flat Sonata, blends light and shadow, a dichotomy that Brendel masterfully and sensitively explored, leaving a bittersweet glow in the hall to match the bittersweet occasion.