Shining a light on Schubert at Kilkenny Arts Festival

Alfred Brendel plays along to probing essay: and who was being guyed in Crash Assembly piece?

Pianist Alfred Brendel gives the audience the unexpected pleasure of performing most of the musical examples himself

Pianist Alfred Brendel gives the audience the unexpected pleasure of performing most of the musical examples himself

 

Alfred Brendel’s two talks at Kilkenny Arts Festival could hardly have been more different. And, no, I’m not thinking about the fact that Brendel lost his voice in Kilkenny and devolved the actual delivery of his first talk to his partner, Irene.

The subject was Schubert’s last piano sonatas and the text was so rich in ideas that there were moments when I wanted to hit a pause button for time to consider a particular point. Sometimes I even wished I could rewind.

What Brendel offered was not so much a talk as a probing essay, a piece of writing to be read in print, rather than listened to. As given in Kilkenny it had the advantage that the voiceless, 86-year-old pianist chose to give the audience the unexpected pleasure of performing most of the musical examples himself, even though he gave up his public performing career nearly 10 years ago.

Although he has sworn off the idea of writing an autobiography, Brendel’s second talk, My Musical Life, was more personal. His career path, which included a first public recital with the title The Fugue in Piano Literature, was anything but orthodox. That programme included a work of his own, and he continued to have a profile as a composer until the mid-1950s, a fact he modestly omitted to mention.

Anyone with a fondness for the nitty-gritty background to a performing career will have found themselves well rewarded with stories of strange concert arrangements in South America, the idea of a rat making its way onstage during a concert, and a performance with the great Viennese tenor Julius Patzak, who, we were told, sight-read during the first rehearsal, and smoked during the second.

There were gentle putdowns such as “Very old conductors usually need to be accompanied by the soloist.” And clear lines were drawn about the styles of music-making and stage production he prefers. He likes conductors who don’t dissect, but who bind things together, and he feels opera productions should communicate what is actually going on in an opera, even to the uninitiated. On another level entirely, he remarked that he “didn’t need Brexit to remind me that I’m a European”.

The pianists who inspired Brendel, or at least those he credits, are small in number: Edwin Fischer, with whom he studied: Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff. They are outnumbered by the conductors he mentioned: Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Josef Krips, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. And pride of place goes to singers, of whom he named around a dozen, beginning with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac and Irmgard Seefried.

However much has been written and said about singing tone on the piano, the reality is that the sound of any note begins to fade immediately after it has been played. But, as Brendel demonstrated through Edwin Fischer playing a Largo from a concerto by Bach (BWV1056), the effect of singing can be wonderfully conjured up, and he played a Schubert recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to demonstrate the peak of artistry in the singing of a song.

Schubert, of course, was this year’s big theme in Kilkenny, and the strand of lunchtime recitals ended firmly in the realm of song. The first that I attended featured soprano Ailish Tynan in a programme of favourites, all thoughtfully, analytically delivered in a style in which the beauty and nuance of individual notes came to dominate over connectedness of phrase and even continuity of line.

Baritone Roderick Williams’s performance of Schwanengesang was unfortunately burdened by being bundled into pianist Iain Burnside’s Swansong, in which each of the songs was prefaced by young actors from The Lir speaking in the characters of people real (the publisher Tobias Haslinger, and composers Johannes Brahms and Ivor Gurney among them) and imagined (a 21st-century American student in Vienna). Cliched theatricality abounded.

The Winterreise by German baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist James Bailieu was happily free of redundant introductions. Appl is a fine singer, still in his prime, the voice often seductively beautiful, the delivery arrestingly communicative, save when his sense of heightened emotion pushes him to an intensity which takes him over the top.

Christian Blackshaw’s performances of Schubert’s three final sonatas took place after Brendel’s talk. His playing is from a different dimension to Brendel’s conception. The music’s grandeur of scale becomes merely a kind of incomprehensible prolongation when beauty of tone is such a primary concern and when softer playing so often goes hand in hand with a slowing of tempo.

By contrast, there was a raw if unbalanced thrust to the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s performance of the Great C major Symphony under Jörg Widmann, with too few strings to counter the weight of the brass. In the first half, Ailish Tynan took a serene and contemplative approach to Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, with Widmann on clarinet in an orchestration by Jürgen Hinz. And Widmann’s own Freie Stücke (Free Pieces) of 2002 came across as a 21st-century journey into the sound-world of the avante-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

Earlier in the week, Crash Ensemble played Jennifer Walshe’s new Pale Dogwood and Rose Quartz, a piece for mostly silent, miming musicians and video, or, if you look at it another way, a series of tableaux vivants. It was received with appreciative chuckles, although I got the feeling that someone was being guyed, maybe even Crash themselves. Just think of the group that boasts about playing “with the energy and spirit of a rock group” having commissioned a piece that keeps them virtually silent.  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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