Conquering heroes

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 29, 2008

I haven’t yet figured out yet why these diverse pieces — Classical, Romantic, Modern — made such a convincing combination. Partly it was the delicacy and economy of the sound. Even the Brahms had clean, crisp, not thick harmonies. It’s clear Berg picked up on Brahms’s Viennese-ness and the snappy rhythms of the Mozart. This was the kind of concert that made one think about such things.

Pianist Alfred Brendel made a triumphant farewell to Boston at his 12th and final Celebrity Series of Boston recital. At 77, and reported to be suffering from arthritis, he’s retiring at the end of his current tour. His loyal following poured into Symphony Hall and cheered his austere Haydn F-minor Variations (perhaps Haydn’s greatest work for keyboard), his meticulous but monochromatic Mozart F-major Sonata, his jumpy but hardly “vivacious” (as marked) Beethoven E-flat Sonata (“Quasi una fantasia,” a companion to the more famous Moonlight), and his stately, noble, stoic, detached, solemn, backward-looking, elderly, almost Victorian rendition of the 31-year-old Schubert’s final battle with fate, his impetuous, charming, piercing, heartbreaking B-flat Sonata.

Brendel treated the audience to three encores: a little Bach (the slow movement of the Italian Concerto), a little Liszt (the gentle “Au lac de Wallenstadt”), and more Schubert (the G-major Impromptu). Although he lacked real power, he was in remarkable technical form. But to my ears there was more rhetoric than poetry. He played the score but didn’t breathe life into it. He drained the music — and has almost always drained the music — of almost everything about it that I love.

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