Brendel Fails To Make Liszt, Busoni Interesting

April 21, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Now that Alfred Brendel has completed his third recorded traversal of Beethoven's monumental 32 piano sonatas, he seems to feel free to return to some of his other favorite composers. Thus it was that the distinguished Austrian pianist returned to Washington yesterday for a recital at Constitution Hall of works by Busoni, Liszt, Schumann and Haydn.

Brendel is now well into his seventh decade, and it is scarcely a surprise that the figure he cuts as he walks across the stage is that of a somewhat stooped and graying eminence. It is unfortunate that many of his performances on this occasion left a similarly enervated and colorless impression.

Although this pianist is best known for his interpretations of the Austro-Germanic masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, he has always been dedicated to the music of Liszt and showed an interest in Busoni. The first half of his recital opened and closed, respectively, with Busoni's Elegies Nos. 3 and 6. Between them were several pieces by Liszt -- five from the Swiss and first Italian books of the "Years of Pilgrimage" and two much later works, the grim "Aux Cypres de la Villa d'Este" and the even more depressive and austere "Nuages Gris."

By performing these pieces, most of them outside the standard repertory, without a break, Brendel seemed to confuse his audience, many of whom kept scanning the program to discover which of the listed works he was playing and almost all of whom remained in their seats for a few minutes -- convinced that the first half of the program was not yet completed -- after Brendel had left the stage for the intermission break.

If the pianist's goal was to demonstrate that Liszt's late music leads directly into the almost trance-like, consolatory stasis of Busoni's elegies, he succeeded. He did not succeed, however, in making these pieces interesting -- even to a listener who knows and likes them -- in and of themselves.

Brendel's performance of Liszt's "Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104, for example, was nothing less than wooden -- denuded of color, stripped of passion and completely without any pianistic flair.

He was more successful after intermission with Schumann's Fantasy in C and Haydn's Sonata No. 54 in G -- if only because performing such masterpieces constitutes a much less difficult "sell." The great Schumann work was beautifully organized -- both lucid and coherent -- if somewhat lacking in ardor and a sense of risk-taking. The two-movement Haydn Sonata sounded too self-conscious for this listener's taste, but there could be no denying the formidable intelligence that governed the performance nor the jeweled precision with which its details were made to emerge.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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