While Brendel was youthful as well as masterful in his farewell Prom, Simon Rattle still hasn't found a distinctive voice for the Berlin Philharmonicby Stephen Everson / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Alfred Brendel’s farewell to the Proms The most notable concert in this year’s Proms was Alfred Brendel’s final live broadcast, and hence final Prom. In the first half, the Philharmonia under Christoph von Dohnányi gave a subtle and refined performance of Brahms’s 3rd symphony. The second half began with Harrison Birtwistle’s charming settings of three of Brendel’s poems, and then the orchestra was joined by Brendel himself for the Emperor concerto. Anyone who had switched on the radio without knowing who was playing would have been hard put to guess that this was a farewell performance by an elder statesman. Rarely can the work have sounded so fresh and daring. Perhaps because the Emperor is Beethoven’s last piano concerto, or perhaps just because of its nickname, there is a tendency for pianists to play it in the grand manner and smooth out its edges. Not so Brendel, who revealed it to be a much more interesting and quirky work than it so often seems. Alert to the boldness of Beethoven’s imagination, he played with a youthful interpretative freedom and rhetorical dash. This sounded like a young man’s playing, except that few young pianists would be able to manifest such a sure grasp of the work as a whole. Dohnányi and the Philharmonia provided a model accompaniment.
Brendel, who will be 74 next year, has begun to draw back from some parts of his concert life-he has said, for instance, that he will not play the Hammerklavier in public again. Yet at least to my ears, he is playing better than ever. He can produce the most powerful musical effects by means of the subtlest rhythmic inflections and changes of colour. Both at the Proms and at his solo recital at the Barbican last June, his playing had what seemed to be an ever greater underlying simplicity, as well as beauty of tone. It is surely extraordinary that at this stage in his career, he should play with a continuing sense of discovery that would be remarkable in a pianist 50 years his junior.
A syrupy Rattle Like last year, though perhaps with less fanfare, the closing stages of the Proms saw the arrival of the Berlin Philharmonic for two concerts under Simon Rattle. On the first night, Beethoven’s 9th symphony was preceded by Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra, while the second night’s programme consisted of Debussy’s La Mer and Messiaen’s Eclairs…