When Alfred Brendel (at left) took the stage last Friday night at Symphony Hall, in the Boston stop of his farewell tour (under the aegis of Celebrity Series), the atmosphere couldn't have afforded a greater contrast to a similar appearance from the Guarneri Quartet a week prior. The Guarneri had essentially partnered with a younger quartet, the Johannes, to give the uplifting impression that their legacy would continue after their own disappearance from the stage. But with Brendel, there was no sense of time's wheel, only of its scythe. The mood was elegiac, not just for the pianist personally, but for a kind of musical intellectual that he had come to represent: the literary pianist, let's say, who attempts to distill an individual classicism from the "texts" of the great composers. Today, the concert hall has begun to evolve into a market of musical niches, in which scholarly novelty is highly prized, with performers specializing in periods or schools, as well as the mastery of instruments designed to reflect earlier tastes and modes. Brendel, on the other hand, has always been more synthetic in his aims, searching for something like a linking thread of thought between what today are considered more and more disparate genres.
The trouble was that Brendel's farewell didn't make all that convincing a case for this approach. He programmed conservatively (not unusual for a late-career pianist), focusing on works from the great Germanic-Austrian tradition (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert). There were no showboat warhorses, and few demanding leaps or runs across the keyboard; Brendel's choices tended to be idiosyncratic (though not actually obscure), selected with an eye toward internal development rather than the easy pleasures of melody or ornament. Even an indifferent listener could sense that to Brendel, there were consonances and formal parallels between these choices that reflected some kind of Borges-like inner garden/labyrinth; however, his playing often turned a bit blurry, and in general felt ingrown; one sometimes felt one was listening to the memory of a great performance rather than the thing itself (at a meta level, a rather Borgesian experience indeed).
Put simply, Brendel's Haydn sounded rather like his Mozart, which actually even sounded quite a bit like his Beethoven, without much emotional force behind these similarities other than intellectual nostalgia. These days we expect to hear brilliant analyses of the differences between these titans; to hear them yoked so closely, I think, inevitably leads one to desire some novel synthesis, rather than a familiar one. Thankfully, Brendel seemed to break free from his inner restraints with Schubert's B-flat Sonata, Op. 960 (perhaps tellingly, Schubert's own farewell to the form), in which his attention to structure and musical "space" provided a lustrous underpinning to, rather than an overdetermination of, the composer's wandering, melancholic song. There were some lovely moments in his encores, too, but then again his Bach (and even his Liszt!) sounded rather like his other old masters. After his final, poignant bow, I'm unhappy to confess I wasn't all that sorry to say good-bye to all that.