Friday, March 07, 2008

Serious And Thoughtful

Last evening, after work, Joshua and I walked over to Orchestra Hall to hear Alfred Brendel in his final Twin Cities appearance.

According to the Minnesota Orchestra program booklet, this week marks Brendel’s sixth week of subscription-concert appearances with the Minnesota Orchestra. Brendel’s first appearance with the orchestra was in 1975.

The hall was almost sold out last night, a rightful tribute to Brendel’s stature.

I had heard Brendel several times in the past, but Joshua had never heard Brendel until last evening.

I have never been a Brendel fan, especially. Among pianists of the Central European school, I have always preferred his teacher, Edwin Fischer, as well as Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus.

Brendel is a serious and thoughtful pianist, to be sure, but I have never found him to be a magical pianist. His technique is satisfactory, no more, and his concentration ebbs and flows noticeably over the course of a performance. There is a start-and-stop quality to his playing, more apparent in recitals than in orchestral appearances. Further, Brendel’s playing is often perfunctory, as if he is fearful of displaying too much individuality or too much personality.

Last evening Brendel played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the most sublime works in the literature. I thought Brendel was splendid, perfectly observant of the work’s Classical requirements while lending weight and gravitas to Beethoven’s writing. I do not think I have ever heard Brendel to better effect than last evening. His final Minneapolis concerts will no doubt leave many warm memories for concert-goers here. My parents will hear a repeat performance tonight.

I am glad that Josh got to hear Brendel. Josh loved the Beethoven, more for the music than for the performance.

The conductor was Osmo Vanska. Vanska is not a good Beethoven conductor. Vanska’s Beethoven is romantic, not classical. He overdoes the rhetoric inherent in Beethoven, at the expense of proportion and classical line. He also emphasizes dynamics far too much, playing up pianissimos and fortissimos to such an extent that they call undue attention to themselves. Musical tension dissipates as listeners (and players) wait for Vanska’s next abrupt shift of dynamics. Ultimately, it all sounds rather vacant.

I have no argument against romantic Beethoven. In many ways, Otto Klemperer was a romantic Beethoven conductor, and yet Klemperer’s Beethoven was incomparable: strong, uncompromising, concentrated, expressive, dramatic, all-encompassing. In contrast, Vanska’s Beethoven is finicky, empty and full of posturing.

The second half of the program was devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6.

The Sixth Symphony has an unusual structure. A very long Largo opens the symphony. The Largo is longer than the two movements that follow, combined (an Allegro and a Presto). Many commentators have noted, for decades, that either the first movement belongs in another symphony or the final two movements belong in another symphony.

I have never cared for this work. The musical argument is feeble and of no inherent interest whatsoever. The symphony only works when a conductor practically rewrites the score, inserting all sorts of extraneous expressive devices to make the work cohere into some sort of bitter, semi-comic tragedy.

Vanska did not know what to do with the symphony. In his hands it sounded vapid and empty, as it usually does. The result was a very long thirty minutes.

The concert opened with a performance of Webern’s early Passacaglia. Inspired by the final movement of Brahms’s final symphony, the Webern made no impact in last night’s performance. The different musical lines were not highlighted, as they must be in order for the work to “sound”. The orchestra produced a thick, dull, gray paste of sound. The result was a performance that sounded like sludge.

This weekend Joshua and I will help my parents begin to get the house and yard ready for Easter. We are looking forward to it.


  1. I've never heard of Brendel.

    Wishing you a peaceful, productive, relaxing weekend, Andrew!


    P.S. Did you get Kathleen Battle tickets?

  2. As I think I mentioned to you, Drew, Brendel lives only a few blocks away. Sort of an odd duck, really.


  3. I've run into him several times over the years. He is the very model of the absent-minded professor.

  4. J.R.:

    Yes, we did buy tickets for Kathleen Battle's recital. I do not know whether this was foolish on our part or not. I guess we will find out on the afternoon of the 30th.

    Alfred Brendel is an Austrian pianist who has resided in London for many, many years.

    If you are interested in a Brendel recording recommendation, I would check to see if your library has his Philips CD of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 coupled with Beethoven's Choral Fantasia, works in which Brendel is joined by the London Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink. That is as good a concerto disc as Brendel ever made.

    Here's to a great weekend!


  5. Calvin:

    The audience response to Brendel last night was extremely warm. He received as long and genuine an ovation as I have ever experienced at a Minnesota Orchestra concert. The Minneapolis audience was clearly sorry to see him go.


  6. Brendel was here in Cleveland the previous week, also playing the Beethoven 3, under Welser-Most. It was good to see and hear him one last time. Brendel had not appeared with Cleveland in nine or ten years.

    Congrats on Minnesota's win over Ohio State. Since I razzed you about Ohio State beating Minnesota earlier this year, I need to commend Minnesota for turning the tables. Sniffles. Robert