Alfred Brendel plays Beethoven; The case for a thinking man's pianist
New York — It hardly seems possible that the last time a complete Beethoven sonata cycle resonated in Carnegie Hall was when Arthur Schnabel perused the 32 works in 1944 .
Alfred Brendel saw to it that no more time would go by in that venerable hall without correcting the odd oversight. May was the month in which he shared his current views of the pieces with capacity audiences in the course of seven evenings. His performance of the cycle was offered in 10 cities in Europe and may be offered in various American cities.
Brendel has always been a favorite of many ''thinking'' musicians and something of a problem for ''feeling'' musicians. Mr. Brendel is certainly in the ''brainy'' school of pianism. Not for him the merely beautiful sound, the flashy effect, or even the purely touching sentiment. This is not to say that Brendel cannot play beautifully, as he revealed in a startlingly eloquent account of ''Fur Elise'' offered as an encore one evening.
But Brendel sees music in structural terms - not just from movement to movement, but in the relation of each movement to the whole. He chooses not to explore sentimental currents in the sonatas, and his often rigorous approach to all the works in the cycle demands much of the audience intellectually. Many prefer a warmer, more
heartfelt approach, but Brendel makes his case impressively.
Not every sonata found Brendel at his best. Something as complex and dense as the Op. 106 (''Hammerklavier'') found his louder playing muddied, his technique less than pristine. A few of the earlier sonatas lacked humor or grace. But overall, Brendel reminded his listeners that each work is individual - unique in voice, in manner of musical thought, and technical articulation.
His finest moments come in the quieter movements - inward, introspective music brings out the best in Brendel's style, and many of those slow movements gained an elevation infrequently encountered in a concert hall. The highlights of the cycle were the E major Op. 109 (No. 30) and the C minor Op. 111 (No. 32) sonatas - the ones that explore unexpected new vistas and heights. He closed the entire cycle with his transcendent performance of the Op. 111.
Along the way there were many things to admire - the wonderful projection of Beethoven's sense of humor, the superior restraint in passages that might otherwise be loaded with misplaced emotionalism.
Brendel demands much of himself and of his listeners. He takes risks that do not always pay off, and on occasion, in his attempt to articulate Beethoven's intellectual mood at the moment, the performance verges on the didactic. And I doubt that anyone not in sympathy with the rigors of Brendel's approach will ever be convinced. For us believers, the Beethoven cycle was an unusually absorbing and rewarding musical event. Completing the Ring on PBS
The final installment of Wagner's Ring Cycle in the Patrice Chereau staging from the Bayreuth Festival is in midstream on PBS. (Many cities will repeat last Monday's presentation of Act I later this week. Acts II & III air in stereo simulcast next Monday, but be sure to check local listings).
If you heard the beginning of the cycle six months ago, you may experience a sense of the full impact this final work conveys when seen and heard in close succession to its predecessors. The TV presentation looks handsome, sounds pretty squally vocally, and gains immeasurably from the subtitles.
Chereau's eccentricities have by now become mostly acceptable, because the core of his stagings is so convincingly human and believable. At times he goes strictly against tradition - having a crowd of Everymen contemplate the body of Siegfried, then contemplate Brunnhilde as she ushers in the fall of the gods. But these moments cry for tight, single focus, and the people intrude, particularly in the closeups TV director Brian Large has given the TV viewer. It is a case of the TV director being faithful to the stage director, who is not always faithful to Wagner.
Miss Jones is a dramatically superb Brunnhilde. Manfred Jung's impervious expressions lend Siegfried a less intelligent air than the character deserves. Franz Mazura (Gunther), Fritz Hubner (Hagen), and Hermann Becht (Alberich) are all superb. There are visually stunning moments galore, particularly in Acts II & III, and the vision of Valhalla going up in flames is mightily impressive. If possible, watch it in simulcast - which, until the advent of serious stereo TV, is the best thing to happen to television today. Instant rapport
To have seen and heard the singer Donald Gramm at his best was to experience the best of American talent. He was trained in the United States and performed here as comfortably in music written for himself as in music by Prokofiev, Donizetti, Berlioz, Mozart, or Verdi.
Mr. Gramm, who passed on last week in New York, was beloved of audiences everywhere not only for the distinctive timbre of his bass voice, but for his rare ability to establish instant rapport - be it over the footlights of an opera stage or in the spotlight of a solo recital.
He gained his reputation as an artistic singer and impressive actor in the glory years of the Santa Fe Opera, at the New York City Opera, and with Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston.
His Met performances began in smaller roles, and more recently he was singing principal roles in new productions and revivals, such as Papageno in Mozart's ''The Magic Flute,'' Don Alfonso in the same composer's ''Cosi fan tutte'' and the like.
There was not much that Mr. Gramm wouldn't try at least once, and the array of roles and music - from established favorites to the newest of the new - garnered him his reputation as one of America's most versatile singing performers.
His recorded catalog is not large, though he can be heard in the title role of Donizetti's ''Don Pasquale'' with Beverly Sills, Miss Caldwell conducting.