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Concert-Lecture Review/ Alfred Brendel

img  Tobias Fischer

Alfred Brendel, Host/Pianist

   Veteran pianist, pedagogue, painter, poet, and scholar Alfred Brendel made a rare appearance in Toronto this past Tuesday under an all-new identity. It was nearly 2 years ago, when Mr. Brendel announced his retirement after sixty illustrious years on stage as a concert pianist. His farewell, which consisted of two concerts devoted primarily to the music of the Viennese Classical composers (and Bach, of course), took place on December 14th 2008 at the Großer Sendesaal, Landesfunkhaus Niedersachsen in Hanover and on December 18th 2008 at the Musikverein, in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the late Sir Charles Mackerras. Nearly two years into his retirement, Mr. Brendel remains ever so determined to continue his quest for music scholarship, and throughout his visits to venues in New York, London, Zurich among others, he continues to mark his stamp on the musical headlines. Tonight was no exception, as witnessed by those who attended his début appearance here at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In rejuvenated form, Mr. Brendel made his staple as a lecturer on a subject matter, which demonstrated his insatiable earnestness for analysis and interpretation.

   As part of Koerner’s Hall concert-lecture series, the first of which entitled “Beethoven and your Brain” was reviewed by us here, Brendel tackled this interesting question in his lecture: “Does classical music have to be entirely serious?” More specifically he raised the question whether music, without the help of words and the theatrical stage, can be funny, comical, or outright witty. Rather than probing into every conceivable corners in classical music history, Brendel argued that the most convincing comical music (in its absolute terms) can be found in some 20th century composers, which he drew passing references to the works of Ligeti and on the Humoreskes written by Dvoƙák, Rachmaninoff, Reger and Schumann. More importantly, Brendel considered that the Viennese Classical composers - those of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, relished most illustriously this musical definition in humor. He emphasized, however, that there is widespread confusion in the meaning of humor, irony and wit. One possibility may be that these “meanings” vary both in style and degree from one culture and language to the next. After all, what one considers to be humorous, ironic and witty can be viewed a deeply personal manner. The musical tools and techniques, however, are not. For his remaining lecture, Brendel highlighted these musical tools by which the Viennese Classical contemporaries championed this skill of humor. He selected over half a dozen of musical excerpts from the piano works of Beethoven and Haydn which he personally finds funny, amusing, and hilarious. 

     With the works of Haydn, Brendel chose the late C Major Sonata (Hob. XVI:50) to highlight some of the intrinsic comical elements. One of these tools is the various articulation, rhythmical and tempo gestures, which Haydn conceived these as a form of comical conversation. “Hear the laughing and bouncing staccatos,” Brendel commented, and he plunged straight into the opening Allegro movement. Another example, Brendel elaborated, was Haydn’s conscious placing of a “wrong B Major chord inside a C Major piece.” This reference referred to the opening thematic statement of the third Allegro molto movement, and here, Brendel illustrated how a performer might camouflage this intriguing reference in various disguises. Both form and psychology have to interact intimately to contribute the comical quality in music. According to Brendel, one of the hallmarks in Haydn’s eccentricities as a composer is his craftsmanship in the spatial treatment of sound – ie. an ingenious notation of rest and fermata in unlikely places. For the listener, this can elicit different psychological impact, such that the suspension and interruption in the flow of music can trigger various psychological and emotional effects based on the character of the piece. Summing up Haydn’s music, Brendel believed that there are several noteworthy elements contributing this composer’s comical traits, including: i) breeches of convention; ii) appearances of ambiguity; iii) proceedings that masquerade something unexpected.

      In accordance, Brendel believed that while Schubert and Mozart wrote beautiful piano music, both wrote their piano music with the vocal (human) voice in mind, thus making it more challenging for one to identify whether any of the identifiable comical elements were written purely for the instrument in mind. On the other hand, Brendel turned much of his focus on the piano music of Beethoven. The comic features, which Beethoven used to depict playfulness, laughter and high-spirits, can be found notably in examples from his Bagatelles, Piano Concerti, Piano Sonatas and Variations. Brendel identified a list of compositional techniques which Beethoven adopted to deliver a comical nature in his music. They include: i) short staccatos; ii) leaps of large intervals; iii) short groups of fast notes separated by rests; iv) oddly misplaced, bizzare, obsessive-sounding accents; iv) bold (unexpected) contrasts using wide dynamics. For each, Brendel offered compelling examples: 

   Using the Variations (“Eroica”) Op.35, Brendel illustrated from the beginning bars how Beethoven used excessive contrasts between pp and ff as a “juxtaposition of alternating whispering and Santorian laughter;” the Variation 7, with its juxtaposition of grandfatherly-chords coupled with light-weighted finger turns; the Variations 9 and 13, with the B flat note producing a shrilling effect till the end. The alternation of fast and slow tempi can be a powerful effect for Beethoven to turn music into a form of “high theatrical laughter.” Using an excerpt from the Variation 21 of the Variations (“Diabelli”) Op.120, Brendel showed how one voice emanates as coarsely energetic, while a contrasting voice sounds whining by nature, as to depict different characters speaking to one another or passing one another.

   The cadenza in the first movement of the C Major Concerto (No.1), for example, contains a trill, which acoustically, seems like a trill that never ends. Brendel commented that the position of this trill within the cadenza “wrecked classical concerto convention,” and he demonstrated how this trill switched the remainder of the music into an entirely new direction, into something completely unexpected to the listener. To affix a comical sense of mind, Beethoven also ingeniously used his accents to set the listener up psychological. One of these examples could be found in the Rondo movement of the Piano Concerto No.2; another was found later before the coda, where the misplaced accents had an illuminating effect in a “Parody-like” section. Brendel further elaborated how the psychological state of a piece was instrumental for a composer to define the comical atmosphere, as this was no exception in Beethoven’s case. By convention a major key, except those outside of operas or songs, often conferred a comical quality. However, exceptions were certainly noteworthy in the great Beethoven, and Brendel illustrated how the second movement of the Piano Sonata Op.110 and the Bagatelle in C Minor, Op.119, which despite its cheerful dance title normally in a major key, can be turned by Beethoven to “express rim resolution.”

    Finally, Brendel used exhaustively examples from Beethoven’s G Major Sonata (Op.31 No.1) to demonstrate how a succession of uneven tempi can sound comical in nature. The opening Allegro movement, Brendel suggested, could be seen as one of Beethoven’s attempts to be obsessively comical in his writings. Brendel stated: “It would be naïve to assume that Beethoven, in the course of this movement, brought the opening idea seven times, the same idea in G major, at the same position, without doing this on purpose.” One other example, which is near the end of Rondo movement, Brendel illustrated how the uneven tempo can have further comical intention. Brendel stated “it sounded as if an Adagio was almost too slow, with rests almost too long for comfort, followed by a Presto that tries to hard to make up for the lost seconds.” In sum, Brendel concluded there are evident clues which made this Sonata Op.31 No.1 a paramount example of comical writing: i) two hands (and their thematic materials) that are unable to play together; ii) the short staccatos; iii) bizzare irregularity in tempi and dynamics

   Witnessing Mr. Brendel’s presence on stage, critically thinking through his claims and evidence on the subject matter, and hearing his demonstrations on the Hamburg Steinway of the Koerner Hall was certainly a highlight for many pianophiles and musicians. It is certainly hopeful that this début of Mr. Brendel at the Royal Conservatory of Music will be the first of many others to come.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Benjamin Ealovega

Homepage: Alfred Brendel

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