Alfred Brendel, Deborah Voigt, James Levine, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: Mozart, Webern, Berg, Strauss, Salome

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Alfred Brendel in his Studio with Doppelgänger

Alfred Brendel in his Studio with Doppelgänger

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine, Music Director and Conductor

Deborah Voigt, Soprano
Alfred Brendel, Piano

Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
R. Strauss, Final Scene from Salome

It comes as particularly sad news that Alfred Brendel will retire from public recitals at the end of this year. [Click here for a review of his Boston farewell recital.] He will have been playing for sixty years, and I’ll have been attending his performances for over forty, ever since one of his first Boston concerts in 1967. Since then he has been for me the musician who was always present throughout my musical life and who has served as as the reference point for my musical experience, in my estimation, the musical personality most characteristic of the late twentieth century. During this period, the music of the Second Vienna School made progress into the basic repertory. Performances became more polished and masterful. Brendel, as a pupil of Eduard Steuermann, has been one of the great exponents of this music, above all Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. Following the example of Artur Schnabel, Brendel adopted Schubert’s late piano sonatas, making them a regular feature of his concert programs and recording them numerous times. His love of Schubert was also developed by another of his teachers, Edwin Fischer, as was his approach Mozart’s piano concertos. The weight, emotional range, and intellectual rigor of his interpretations of these works, have to my mind set the standard for the past generation. His Beethoven sonatas again set the standard for the late twentieth century, just as Schnabel’s did for the first half of the century, as did his performances of the piano concertos. Finally, no other musician has done as much to promote the reevaluation of Franz Liszt’s work, stressing his strongest music rather than pieces which offered the most fruitful resources for virtuoso display.

As the most uncompromisingly intellectual of musicians, along with Charles Rosen, Brendel disciplined his formidable technique to serve the essence of the music. Strong, consistent tone in all registers, clarity to allow the significant musical lines to be heard, steady pace to allow the overall shape and harmonic structure of the music to appear are the essential traits of his pianistic method, through whatever phases his style has evolved. His early style was the most rigorous. While his tone was always handsome, it was never sensuous. In later years he developed more variety of tone, which he always used to express the essential mood of the music, as well as the structural place of a passage in a movement. Lately—and this was especially marked in the concert under review—his tempi seem to have accelerated, and his textures and sense of the overall shape have become tighter. His sound appears to be more brilliant, and, while he retains much of the coloristic range of his middle style, the overall effect is more austere.

Like Charles Rosen, he has found writing to be a necessary adjunct to his playing, but his writing also extends beyond musical scholarship and criticism to poetry and humorous essays, in the Viennese style of Alfred Polgar, as well as wise nonsense verses like Christian Morgenstern’s. In fact Mr. Brendel’s retirement will not really be a retirement, but a reallocation of priorities in favor of his literary career. Like Schubert he is Moravian, but his love of word-play is quintessentially Viennese. He will also continue to give master classes.

In the program at Carnegie Hall, James Levine could not have provided a more appropriate setting for Brendel’s brilliant performance of Mozart’s Concerto in c minor, K. 491. It was preceded by the original 1909 version of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and followed, after the intermission, by Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. The final scene from Richard Strauss’ Salome closed the program in a different world—that of opera, but Mozart was, after all, an opera composer, and his mature piano concerti wouldn’t be what they are without opera. Mozart, Strauss, Webern, Berg are all among Levine’s favorites, and his enthusiasm—rather his deep love for the music—was evident in all four selections.

Both the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Carnegie Hall have a leaner sound than The Boston Symphony in either Symphony Hall or the Music Shed at Tanglewood. As overwhelmingly rich and beautiful as the “Boston sound” may be, this leanness has its own advantages in terms of clarity and detail, but it was clearly most valuable in the Mozart. James Levine was generally the same powerful intellect, enthusiast, and théatromane he is in Boston. His gestures were, if anything, more expansive than his current methods with the BSO. In any case the Met Orchestra played brilliantly throughout, and Carnegie Hall sounded better than ever, unless one remembers back beyond the renovations of the 1980’s.

In his reading of Webern’s 1909 arrangement of the Six Pieces for a larger ensemble, Levine made the most of the richer sonorities to bring out the drama of the music in a performance which never ceased to flow, in spite of Webern’s spacious pauses, fragmented orchestral choirs, and jagged dynamics. The brass sonorities were stunning, and the string playing endlessly nuanced. This dramatic reading was not the ascetic Webern we often hear; it approached the operatic world of Berg, and foreshadowed what was to come in the second half, not to mention the Mozart concerto, which has both a severe and an operatic aspect, performed as it was only a little more than a month before Le Nozze di Figaro in the spring of 1786.

I had some misgivings in anticipating a collaboration of Brendel and Levine. A few years ago, Levine and the BSO gave him what I thought was a most unsatisfactory accompaniment in the d minor concerto. Sometimes, Levine lapses into what seems to be a generic Viennese mode, somewhat reminiscent of Josef Krips, who was no mean musician, but certainly not a Furtwängler, a Walter, or a Kleiber. But Levine’s accompaniment, as beautifully executed as it was, seemed insensitive to Brendel’s dark urgency in the d minor, which left little room for softness or light until the very end. But that was early in Levine’s tenure in Boston. Last January Imogen Cooper received a much tougher and more responsive accompaniment from Colin Davis, in her memorable performance of K. 491 last year in Symphony Hall. Now Imogen Cooper is very much her own woman, but her playing does have a marked similarity to that of her teacher, really more from sympathy than imitation, and Sir Colin provided just the kind of support Brendel himself should have. I was terrifically relieved to hear Levine produce incisive playing from the Met Orchestra which suited Brendel’s approach perfectly. This was a large band approach with an almost full complement of strings, violins split across the stage, as always under Levine. The lean, dark, neatly balanced strings allowed inner voices to come through, not only the winds, but among themselves as well.

Brendel’s interpretation of K.491 was quite different from earlier performances I have heard in the hall and on disc. His tempi seem faster, and his tone—on the American Steinway he used—is brighter and more austere. The spare, sharply phrased octaves for strings and bassoons were an entirely apt introduction to Brendel’s sensitive, but stoically controlled opening lamentations: pathetic, but gracefully poised. Levine also took care to pick up the piano’s left hand thirds as the subject is expanded. The abrupt crescendi were grave and forbidding, as were the great melodic jumps. As ever, Brendel points the harmonic and structural milestones of the movement to bring out its overarching Schenkerian form. Brendel played his own cadenza, a rather different one than what I remember from years ago, this one striking more of a balance between pathos and elegance. In the slow movement Brendel’s added ornamentation also seemed to have developed. In his touchingly contained first statement of the theme he ornamented simply and flowingly, and his execution of the ornaments was more relaxed, although, in the spirit of the rapid first movement, he didn’t allow the wistful tune to drag. He built his ornamentation subtly through the movement, elaborating it considerably in the final statement of the theme. In his exquisite (and quite different!) 1999 recording with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Brendel eschewed ornamentation entirely in the opening statement, applying only very simple additions in the recapitulation. The final variations move along inexorably, with any sort of arioso gesture suppressed by the weight of the large orchestra and the grand gestures it obliges. A sign of the gravity of Brendel’s mood was the almost violent way in which he attacked the dotted third variation. The variations continued in this public, tragic vein, relaxing only in the songful phrases leading up to the stark final cadence, powerfully stated by Mr. Brendel and the full orchestra. A comparison of his two commercial recordings and his public performances over the years, most strikingly different from one another, shows the range of Brendel’s imagination and his restless probing. In the recording mentioned above, he was moving toward extreme intimacy in his approach, with a relaxed openness to the more lyrical passages in the work. Sunday’s large-scale, tragic interpretation, like the Boston d minor mentioned above, shows him working in a radically different direction. The freshness and immediacy of Brendel’s playing at Carnegie Hall make it clear that, even if he believes it is time to stop for physical reasons, he continues to move forward on intellectual and spiritual levels. The probing, heuristic, and almost improvisational character of this performance gave the impression that he is once again at the beginning of a new path of discovery. It is a pity that after this year only his students will benefit from his research.

Mr. Brendel played an encore, Beethoven’s Fourth Bagatelle, Op. 33, in A Major, which sounded wistfully lyrical, even Schubertian, in spite of his rather quick tempo, which only made the music seem compact, rather than rushed. This lively sense of forward movement appears to be a trait of Brendel’s playing in this, his final year of performing in public.

After the intermission the program moved in a different direction, as if Levine’s dramatic Webern suggested that he couldn’t wait to imerse himself in opera, Salome on this occasion, with a star soloist. In his interpretation, Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, which I suppose we should consider a Jugendwerk, strikes one as a preparation for Wozzeck, which Berg began some two or three years later, as if the opera were struggling to break out of the three short movements for large orchestra. As I reflected on the performance, my mind kept returning to the orchestral sections of Wozzeck. The grim, brooding prelude, the manicReigen, and the sinister, even brutal march seemed to look ahead towards a stage work, rather than backwards at his Mahlerian exemplars, above all the middle movements of the Ninth Symphony. It is interesting to remember that Levine paired his November performance of Mahler’s Ninth with Berg’s equally valedictory Violin Concerto, a favorite match of his. A pairing with the Three Pieces might have been instructive, but, in terms of mood, destructive as well.

In any case, the Three Pieces prepared us brilliantly for the final scene from Salome, especially for its most radical aspects, which were clearly apparent, as fluent and polished as the performance was. Of course, such a remark hardly does justice to Deborah Voigt’s singing, which was nothing less than a magnificent example of the grand tradition. Not only was her voice in top form, showing absolute consistency across her range and no compromises in execution, she brought this terrifying figure fully to life, the willful daughter of a wealthy potentate, totally given over to her inchoate but raging appetites—a big sister, of mythical proportions, to the Infanta of Zemlinsky’s opera after Wilde, performed at Bard last summer. Voigt filled the hall, entirely secure over the waves of sound emanating from the orchestra, but always clear and transparent, allowing important inner dissonant voices to emerge. It was also clear that the perfect sense of pace and timing which characterized this performance was a collaboration between singer and conductor: their connection throughout was of the most intimate kind. I’ve attended some superb operatic performances over the past few years, but I can’t think anything that quite matches Voigt and Levine as proof that the traditional qualities of great opera—instrument, technique, an understanding of words and drama, as well as a highly developed humanity—are still alive.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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