Alfred Brendel, piano
Studio: Philips DVD B0005820-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 full screen, color
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 Surround
Length: 105 minutes
Filmed and recorded at the Great Hall of the Middle Temple, London, January 1988, Alfred Brendel presents the triptych of Schubert’s last sonatas from 1828. “Schubert’s last sonatas belong together,” Brendel states in his informative essay, the booklet for this DVD. “A thesis of menace and destructive energy ( C Minor), followed by an antithesis of positive luminous activity (A Major), concludes with a synthesis of resigned composure [B-flat].” Omitting the repeats in Schubert’s expositions, Brendel preserves the sonatas’ heavenly dignity and grand passions, if not their heavenly length, which could have become too much of a good thing. Arnie Tidder, vision supervisor, has taken a page from Michelangeli’s stipulations that videos of his concerts not focus on his face; so, rather we can watch Brendel’s communion with himself from the side, or we can watch the magic of his large hands as they unfold some of the most poetic music ever wrought for the keyboard.
The surround-sound format for he DVD is quite pungent; several times, my wife and daughter asked me to lower the recorded Steinway’s volume. The C Minor Sonata blazes with lusty chromaticism, only occasionally offset by episodes of tender wistfulness. Feverish melancholy, while not necessarily rife with premonitions of his own death, still manage to shiver with intimations of human mortality. The second movement of the A Major, with its Bach transformed into a stormy, horrific dirge, comes to mind as well. Watch Brendel’s almost histrionic throwing of his right arm back at the broken chords in this movement, just before he releases both hands to again address the piano for the emotional reconciliation of tragic energies. If the C Minor Sonata can be said to wander, it does so in a state near dementia. If, as the Viennese say, life is hopeless but not serious, the C Minor Sonata weeps for its lost sense of humor. The video lighting, by Alan Woolford, contributes to the darkly pious atmosphere of Brendel’s aesthetic, often throwing his own massive frame into relief, so that they might be Schubert’s own glasses on Brendel’s rapt face.
When the camera pans down from the illuminated window to Brendel’s piano in anticipation for the B-flat Sonata, we feel as though we have reached the expected, hard-won resolution. Brendel’s rendition is the soul of intellectual poise, unhurried, but no less intensely introspective for his moderate tempo. He will compensate for the sense of expanse in the final movement, which moves impulsively to the last pages. The heart of the sonata lies somewhere in the transition from the opening Molto moderato to the songful plaint of the Andante sustenuto, which share motivic impulses. The sun shines for a moment–and then despair. Wasn’t it Conrad who said that order rests atop the crust of a seething volcano? Brendel brings the prophet Schubert’s tragically lyric vision to life, a real testament to a studied life in music. A visual record and literate essay, each to be enjoyed many times over.