The world of Alfred Brendel has its hazards. Afflicted with an arthritic condition, the Viennese-born pianist insists on performing in an airless concert hall: air conditioning off, audience doors shut until the last minute. To a casual listener, Brendel’s chosen music is similarly hazard-strewn: none of Chopin’s razzle-dazzle Etudes played at overdrive, no Rach 3, simply the fabulous if abstract sonata forms that tickled the Viennese intellectuals back to Mozart and beyond.
To the ardent Brendelians who packed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as Brendel gave three performances of Robert Schumann’s sublime Piano Concerto — and again on a subsequent night for one of their idol’s famous no-frills recitals — Brendel is worth it, airless hall and all. His latest L.A. appearances, low on fireworks but rich in integrity and love, constituted a memorable lesson in the exercise of musical intelligence.
There are pianists who ride Schumann’s Concerto as a hobby horse. Not Brendel; he approached the work as a piece of chamber music writ slightly large, caressing the music’s almost-vocal lines and curling the tone of his Steinway around the orchestral soloists, turning the 3,102-seat Chandler Pavilion into an intimate and loving setting, and turning the 30 minutes of Schumann’s well-worn music into a voyage of discovery.
The recital began with classical sonatas: two by Haydn and the remarkable C-major Sonata (K. 330) of Mozart with its lush and surprise-laden harmonies; it concluded with the last of the three stupendous sonatas (in B flat) that Franz Schubert, diseased and despairing, turned out in his final months on earth. Frankly stated, nobody plays the Schubert Sonatas as well as Brendel; nobody else captures the deep sunset colors that end the first movement of this work, or the wrenching key-change, like the slippage along a fault line, midway in the second.
Known for his impatience with air conditioning and with coughing and sneezing audiences (present in abundance last Tuesday night), Brendel also has the patience to follow the garrulous and sometimes convoluted lines and shapes in Schubert’s particular brand of magic. His reading of this grand, mysterious sonata (and of Schubert’s angelic G-flat Impromptu that served as his encore) was arguably the greatest event since … well, since the last time Alfred Brendel played Schubert at the Music Center.