In his introductory talk which takes up the first portion of "Brendel on Beethoven", a video from Philips originally produced for BBC Television, Alfred Brendel quotes Goethe's impression of Beethoven. "I've never met an artist more concentrated, more energetic, or more warmly or tenderly committed." One can use similar words to describe the pianist's thoughtful and pointed overview on the thirty two sonatas. His lucid and perceptive remarks cogently illuminate the essence of these works in a manner that will stimulate and reward professionals and novices alike. Touching upon key components of the Beethoven style - form, economy, energy, emotion, character, humor, Brendel's insights reflect his gift for analysis and his consideration for the practical performer, replete with carefully chosen examples from the piano, One might counter his contention, though, that the "Hammerklavier" sonata's first movement becomes "silent movie music" when played at the composer's 132 to the half note metronome marking, as Peter Serkin successfully disproved in his revelatory recording (Pro Arte o/p).
Curiously, Brendel says nothing about the composer's equally controversial long pedal indications in the first movement recitativos of the "Tempest" sonata. As it happens, Brendel makes tiny adjustments in order not to blur the passages beyond recognition. For all the obvious thought, scholarship and attention to detail Brendel imparts to this wonderful sonata, I find his playing tonally un-alluring and tight-lipped, wanting in inner urgency and flow. The sublime slow movement - which the pianist aptly characterizes as "an angel between two demons," for instance, seems static and undifferentiated, which was not the case in his previous Vox and Philips recordings. Yet the transitions between the three movements are impeccably timed, their interconnections abundantly clear under Brendel's knowing hands.
Brendel's opening talk should be made required viewing in any Beethoven studies program worth its salt.
(Published in Piano Today March/April 1996)
Copyright © 1996, Jed Distler