Alfred Brendel’s only Canadian stop on his current North American tour may well have put the probability of a return visit into the “slim to none” category. The reason, as was painfully obvious throughout this magnificent recital for the capacity crowd that jammed Southam Hall, was an alarming lack of the composer’s friend and the performer’s most precious commodity: silence.
Of course, the intrusions into the incredible bounty of insight, subtle shading and child-like joy began just before Brendel appeared. Patrons, already appealed to by the “Please Be a Good Neighbour” box in the house program, were, in both official languages, further chided by the unseen “Big Bother” to extinguish their cellphones, beepers, et cetera. But what ever happens to those who fail to heed this faceless warning? Try lighting up a smoke and there are serious consequences; electronic air pollution goes unpunished. Well, not quite.
The opening set of variations was a spectacular display of vintage Brendel. He lovingly drew a multilayered array of tone and texture from the seldom-performed score. At times, the left hand coaxed pizzicato-like lengths from the Steinway’s horizontal strings, adding immeasurably to the unabashed joy of discovery that pervaded the set, which culminated, emotionally, in his grinning triplets that were equally infectious. But lurking in the background of this patiently nourished gem was a most unwelcome accompaniment: an electronic howl that signalled the end of the road for a hearing-aid battery, the irony of which wasn’t lost on many. Still, that modern interjection paled in comparison to the full assault on the classic repertoire from dozens of coughers/lozenge unwrappers, whispering attendees and program shufflers who battered one of the world’s most important artists with more “challenges” than the composers’—whose subtext and meaning were being openly shared in a selfless manner that demands gratitude and respect rather than cacophonic distractions.
Kreisleriana was a miracle of introspective declamation, emotionally rich lingering and an overall sense of the underlying architecture that was astonishing to behold. A third of the way along the undulating journey, Brendel had the appreciative assembly nearly tamed. He rewarded the crowd with sublime moments of subtlety—notably the voicing around the melodic line—but was then faced with distractions of a wholly different kind while a medical emergency was assuredly attended to by a close-by audience member and NAC staff. The torrent of feeling and life-experience flowing through Brendel from the stage seemed entirely apt.
The leading interpreter of Schubert returned after the break to soar through the delectable “Moments” with aplomb and magic seldom found in such abundance on his recordings. Melodic repeated-notes were marvels of shading, phrases disappeared rather than ended. But soon the bronchial interjections soured the mood and drew not a few pleading looks into the hall from the master who uses power with restraint instead of the more common-place poundings from many younger practitioners who often “shout” at the ticket-holders rather than entice them into the art.
Soon the exacerbated pianist gave up and provided merely excellent rather than miraculous delivery of the music. His Haydn was delicious—the returns of the “Rondo’s” theme handled with giggling delight, but a more sublime level remained locked away for others to savour. The tumultuous response to the program closer elicited one of the shorter Impromptus (No. 3 in G-flat Major) as a “courtesy” encore, but we’d been cut off. Soon the house lights were raised: audience dismissed.
Have we now reached the point that “music lovers” cannot be still, quiet, thoughtful? Has the incessant drone of background “music” that daily dumbs down our ears diminished our sensibility, rendering us cowards in the presence of deeply personal ideas? How can we share experience if only one of the partners is actively involved?
Artists of Brendel’s calibre don’t “need” to prove themselves to anyone, but do crave an atmosphere of true appreciation in order to feed off the collective. If the elements are properly aligned, then the interpreters—charged with confidence—slip into the “zone” of genius and further explore their role as composer-surrogate, glimpsing then communicating their discoveries to all.
Concerts like these run the risk of forcing the true artist into other venues whose atmospheres are more conducive to the mining of greatness, robbing those beyond their reach who wish to be equally nourished by the all-too-rare sustenance of the soul.
Jon Vickers, referring to Luciano Pavarotti’s appearance on The Tonight Show, got it right: “Sooner or later the art laughs at you.” But will enough of us care? JWR