Pianist Alfred Brendel leads a musical campaign for Schubert
Los Angeles — As if United States elections were being held in the world of classical piano, Alfred Brendel, pianist, is whistle-stop stumping on behalf of fellow Austrian Franz Schubert, composer. Onstage in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, the man long ago described by critics as an ``intellectual pianist'' is turning his scholarly eye and musical touch on the last seven years of one of the romantic era's foremost composers. The eloquence and subtle artistry that have brought Mr. Brendel his greatest acclaim in the last two seasons is now being harnessed toward exploding long-held stereotypes of the sometimes maligned composer.
Following Brendel's success in presenting full cycles of Beethoven sonatas in recent seasons, full Schubert cycles are in progress in New York and in Los Angeles, with partial cycles elsewhere. Key works include the Sonatas in A minor (0p. 42) and D major (Op. 53), four ``Impromptus'' (Op. 90), Fantasy in C major (Op. 15, ``Wanderer''), and two posthumous works, Sonatas in A major and B-flat major.
Offstage, the man who has written books and essays explaining the historic neglect of Schubert is shedding light on the prejudices he hopes to break down with his playing. ``Schubert is the most immediately moving of any composer for piano. Notwithstanding what you read in the scholarly literature, he pushed it beyond the limits of a percussive instrument to that of a full orchestra, further than Beethoven.''
Not since Artur Schnabel introduced European and American audiences to much of Schubert in the 1920s and '30s has anything on this scale been attempted, he says. He, Sviatoslav Richter, and others began including more Schubert sonatas in their recitals in the early '50s. Younger pianists have included mostly smaller works in recent years.
``I don't think there are many people in most European countries who haven't gotten the message yet,'' he says. Brendel gave full Schubert cycles in Europe last season. ``But [in the US] there is still an orientation toward the Russian and Polish virtuoso composers,'' such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev.
``Schubert was not a concert pianist - though he accompanied his lieder well - nor a teacher, so there was no one to start a tradition on how these pieces should be played.'' Understanding his piano works requires understanding his entire oeuvre of songs, symphonies, and stage and choral music, he adds.
``If you play the staccato markings at the beginning of the C major sonata as written, it sounds like insipid, organ-grinder music,'' he says. ``But if you stop thinking from a purely pianist point of view and start thinking from the view of someone who wants to put the piano music of Schubert into a score - you would have to put in quite a few instruments as a harmonic background.''
He illustrates the two effects at a nearby piano: abrupt, hollow sounding tones at first; then broad, elongated tones produced with pedal - a more orchestral approach.
Another reason history hasn't given Schubert his due, says Brendel, ``is that Schubert's large piano works surpassed the possibilities of his present-day instruments. They are very often orchestral in conception, which just couldn't be translated by a product of the early 1800s.''
Brendel also fights many pianists' opinion that Schubert's music ``does not fit well under the hand'' - meaning that it's technically awkward for the human hand.
``True, this is not music that plays itself, the pianist has constantly to react,'' he says. ``But I do not believe in the merit of smooth technical writing. It is Schubert's activism as an all-around composer - and not just a piano specialist like Chopin - that stretches the player's notions beyond just piano sounds.''
There is much the performer can contribute to music, he adds, citing liberal use of pedal and random use of parallel octaves for coloring.
Born in Wiessenberg, Czechoslavakia, in 1931, Brendel studied in Vienna with Paul Baumgartner, Edward Steuermann, and Edwin Fischer. A comparatively late success, he has specialized in the works of Central European masters, avoiding Chopin and French composers.
``I don't want to see Schubert as genial, a bit mellow, and sentimental as he was treated in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, or as a 24-hour-a-day depressive and obsessive, as many are characterizing him today. If he were that obsessive, he wouldn't have been able to compose nearly 1,000 works in his short life.''
Brendel says that although he has been carrying a torch of sorts for Schubert for years, he is still modifying his own notions of the composer's contributions. ``I must say that I underestimated the logical thread that runs throughout his pieces, which seems almost improvisatory.'' He has called Beethoven the quintessential musical architect and Schubert the ``sleepwalker.''
``I still think that comment is valid in a way. But now I'm here to stress that the sleepwalker was also a great craftsman.''