Brendel soars but also falters in all-Beethoven program

April 14, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

WASHINGTON -- To say that Beethoven's opus 79 opens in media res is to put too high a gloss on it. This little sonata represents the composer's experiments in what, after the rhetorical flights of opus 53 (the "Waldstein") and opus 57 (the "Appassionata"), one can call a more vernacular style.

In opus 79, as it were, the composer places us suddenly in the middle of what sounds like a dispute between two street vendors. The beauty of Alfred Brendel's performance of the piece -- in his all-Beethoven recital Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center -- was that he was able to color it so that each strand of its argument had a different personality.

The end of the movement, in which the argument ends peaceably, was resolved with a masterly quiet touch. And the rest of this modest, quirky sonata -- particularly its vivacious finale -- was just as persuasive.

Great musician though he often is, Brendel is sometimes an erratic pianist, and much of the rest of the recital did not show him in his best form. The first movement of the two-movement opus 78 (sometimes called "A Therese" and one of the composer's personal favorites) was insufficiently tender and intimate.

In the final movement -- a toccata-like explosion -- the pianist's playing was clearly labored. While caution kept him from breaking down in the coda, he missed too much of the music's effervescent joy.

Brendel's performance of the sunlit "Pastoral" -- the nickname was not the composer's -- Sonata (opus 28) was simply boring. This is not one of the composer's dramatic works, but on other occasions Brendel has made more of the drone-bass rusticity of the finale and the unbuttoned humor of the scherzo.

The recital's second half was also disappointing. While the pianist was clearly aware of the prose-poetry dichotomy in the two-movement opus 90 in E Minor, the first movement's argument lacked energy. The second movement, which looks forward to Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words," was insufficiently lyrical. The ending -- one of the most delicate and subtle in the composer's canon -- was too matter-of-fact.

Brendel ended the program with opus 7 in E-flat, one of Beethoven's longest and most underrated pieces. There was much that was beautiful in the pianist's performance -- particularly the fearless way he handled the slow movement's enormous time frame, with its querulous spurts of energy and profound silences pregnant with meaning. But this is grand music, and Brendel -- on this occasion, at any rate -- simply didn't have enough muscle, and a sound large and beautiful enough, to make the first and final movements genuinely satisfying.

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