Amusing variations on a theme

Review: Pianist Alfred Brendel brings a palpable sense of humor to `33 Variations in C major.'

April 11, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With scruffy tufts of gray hair and a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, Alfred Brendel might suggest to irreverent souls a musical version of that old nutty comedian Professor Irwin Corey.

The image isn't really absurd; the revered Austrian pianist, who turned 70 in January, has a wry sense of musical humor. He revealed it to memorable effect during an extraordinary performance Monday at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall.

The recital, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, reconfirmed the long and widely held opinion that Brendel is the direct artistic descendant of such inspired, inspiring interpreters of the great Austro-German repertoire as Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Kempf.

Addressing works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Brendel demonstrated his familiar command of technique and tone, his unfailingly sensitive way of contouring a phrase. But the wit that kept poking out behind the notes left a particularly strong impression.

Although classical music is rarely ha-ha funny, Beethoven's "33 Variations in C major," more popularly known as the "Diabelli Variations," comes awfully close.

Diabelli was a minor composer but a great music publisher. He decided to ask the 50 best composers of his day to write one variation each on a tune he composed. Beethoven ignored the assignment. As if annoyed at the notion there were 49 other significant composers, Beethoven decided to show them all up.

His variations-to-end-all-variations does everything conceivable to Diabelli's workmanlike little ditty. As Brendel observed in a trenchant analysis of the score, the theme is "improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted." (The analysis can be found in "Alfred Brendel on Music: Collected Essays," a survey of the pianist's insights published by A Cappella Books to coincide with his 70th birthday.)

It was possible to forget the sweltering conditions in the hall as Brendel brilliantly explored the range of moods and colors in the nearly hourlong "Diabelli Variations." From the first variation, a mock-serious march, he relished Beethoven's humor. By the time he reached the 14th variation, the one with huge bursts of pomposity repeatedly answered by soft, mocking two-note answers, it was impossible not to smile.

Brendel hardly limited himself to highlighting all the nose-thumbing in the score. On those occasions when Beethoven provided a poetic take on Diabelli's tune, the pianist offered remarkable sensitivity. The 24th variation's little fugue, for example, was carved with the most delicate of touches and a singing line that made it sound nearly as profound as anything by Bach. And when sheer virtuosity was called for, Brendel had plenty to spare.

It's amazing how much mileage Beethoven got out of Diabelli's theme; it's even more amazing how much Brendel can get out of this composition. As the "New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" puts it, "Other Beethoven interpreters may be as grand, or as adept at reaching areas of deep feeling, but in matters of wit and musical daring, Brendel has often appeared in a class of his own."

He was no less enlightening in the opening G minor Sonata by Haydn, articulated with remarkable finesse and an appreciation for the score's lightheartedness. Mozart's D minor Fantasy received an eloquent account; his A minor Sonata inspired playing of dramatic urgency that gave even the slow movement considerable tension.

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