Lecture-concert by Alfred Brendel, piano
Studio: DGG DVD B0005907 -09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo, English with German subtitles
Duration: 116 minutes
Humphrey Burton directed this 29-31 March 1986 visual record of Alfred Brendel’s authoritative lecture-concert of the sixteen pieces which comprise Franz Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage. Recorded in the Great Hall of the Middle Temple, London, Brendel provides at once illuminating, scholarly commentary and studied, pianistic realizations of Liszt and the Romantics’ obsession with interior and exterior journeys, Nature without and within the individual poetic soul. Liszt approached Nature most often through Literature, taking his cues for the Wanderer’s ethos from Schubert, Senancourt, Rousseau, Byron, and Georges Sand. “Happiness lies where one is not,” provides a credo common to the entire poetic generation from Goethe to Byron. Except for two pieces in the Swiss Year – the Pastorale and Les cloches de Geneve – each section has a literary inscription or verse attached to it that guides Liszt’s inspiration. Brendel clearly admires Liszt’s subordination of bravura and virtuosity to the context of the music: “he cut away monstrosities, and deliberation comes to the rescue of white heat.”
Brendel insists that only by playing the Years of Pilgrimage as a cycle of pieces does the higher wisdom of its structure become apparent, the interconnectivity and scale of the concept. He claims that the sense of not-belonging takes its cures from French and Italian (especially Bellini) models, so that the cycle is less German and more airy, full of lightness and grace as well as the anguish of Nature’s violence, as in the C Minor Orage. Landscape and folklore, vision and history inform these works, as in the opening Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, with its emergent call to freedom. The stark vocal melody Liszt achieves in pieces like Eclogue possess what Brendel calls “a delicious simplicity.” The Italian Year depicts art and the continuities of creative minds, as in Sposalizio, composed in response to Raphael and employing a pentatonic scale in pursuit of “elated innocence.” Much of Liszt anticipates harmonic progressions in Debussy and Richard Strauss. That Brendel’s visual iconography make him a priest of art is perfectly intentional: his rapture in the throes of Vallee d’Obermann and in Sposalizio is as palpable as the latter’s descending chords could have been sutured directly into Debussy’s E Major Arabesque.
Il Penseroso allows us to juxtapose the Michelangelo statue above the tomb of Lorenzo di Medici and Michelangelo’s own poem against the pre-Wagnerian harmony of Liszt’s music. Music by Bononcini, a lyrical march, intrudes into the set, as Liszt’s Canzonetta del Salvatore Rosa is his only arrangement in the cycle. It concludes with the Lisztian gesture of crossed hands. The three Petrarch sonnets celebrate the joys and anguish of love, its dramatic oxymorons. The poet blesses the moment he first spied Laura, despite the emotional throes and abysses which have ensued. By Sonnet 123, Laura has become a heavenly angel, whose exalted state elicits from Liszt his digital ecstasies. Finally, Liszt salutes the Divine Dante via Victor Hugo: “the poet who depicts Hell depicts his own soul.” Scenes from Gustav Dore illuminate Brendel’s musical comments, even presenting the score in its chromatic octaves and demand for a five-bar pedal to smear the distance between the living and the dead.
Throughout the visual proceedings, judiciously shot to capture Brendel in shadow and light, pulling back in profile to reveal the chiaroscuro of the cathedral and the music, we can see Brendel’s ballet of hands and arms, conducting the arcs and gestures of sound. Despite all of the topographical alienation expressed in the sentiments of the poetry and the music, there persists the ability to love. See the pinion on the small finger of his left hand in the middle of Sonetto 123. It is this seething, irresistible urgency and passion which separates the Romantic sensibility from the Modern. And so, Brendel is the medium for three centuries of emotional energies, the expressive arbiter of ratio and eros, whose [plastered] fingers transmit the aspirations of a more humane age.
[Not DTS 5.1, but even better sonics via PCM stereo which you can then process for surround via ProLogic II if you wish. Thank you Universal for not give us Dolby mono or stereo tracks! Why classic movies usually don’t save paying the Dolby fee and give us higher-res PCM mono I’ll never understand…Ed.]