It's not long now before Alfred Brendel's retirement and this concert – and its repeat on 10th June – marks his final appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra. In London, we've only now got his final solo recital at the South Bank to come later this month and a concerto appearance there in the autumn. As a result, all his performances are now to be cherished more than ever, and inevitably the lengthy and enthusiastic applause that greeted his playing of Mozart's C minor Concerto K.491 was just as much for the years of pleasure he's afforded concert-goers as for the performance he'd just given.
However, the virtues that have made Brendel's Mozart, in particular, so rewarding were still much in evidence. In the first movement of this, the composers's darkest concerto, Bernard Haitink set the tone with a stern account of the opening tutti to which Brendel provided a light counterpoint. I was struck by the soft sound of his piano – I couldn't quite see, but he seemed to be employing the soft pedal quite extensively – and although he sometimes risked being drowned out by the orchestra, his deft way with the passage work was often enchanting. For the septuagenarian Brendel, this is evidently not the work of proto-Beethovenian Sturm und Drang that some see it as, but Mozartian through and through, and the delicacy and lightness of his touch – including in the uncredited cadenza – reflected this.
The pianist's vocalising, which seems to have become more expressive over the years, was sometimes rather too noticeable in the central Larghetto, but this and a couple of moments of untidy ensemble with the orchestra did little to detract from what was a performance of this movement that was heartfelt and elegant. The final Allegretto, taken at a fast basic speed, showed that Brendel's fingers are as agile as ever, and he added some extravagant improvisatory flourishes of his own before the final variation. Some will no doubt have wished for a bit more drama in this reading but Brendel's considered, soft-grained way with the work emphasised a lyricism and elegance that's often lost.
The decision to programme Richard Strauss's massive Alpensinfonie in the second half was risky: after Brendel's urbane musicianship, was a work, often held up as an exemplum of Strauss' tendency towards godless bombast, going to come across as anything but vulgar? In the event, Haitink's carefully paced account of the score struck an ideal balance between torment and triumph. Far from a mere depiction of Alpine scenery and a jolly day of mountaineering, it is a work closely tied with Strauss's own doubt and the artist's struggle, with the help of a bit of Nietzschean self-determination, to overcome that doubt.
Haitink's interpretation of the score hardly lacked brilliance, the fiercely virtuosic playing of the LSO took care of that, but was successful particularly in those passages of wrenching uncertainty. While the opening 'Sunrise' was thrilling and the moments at the summit bracing and invigorating (the augmented brass section were on particularly fine form) it was in the succeeding section, 'Vision', that Haitink brought some of the best playing from his orchestra. Here, the sense of enormous anxiety that takes over was evoked with shattering power. The calm before the storm was carefully controlled and the storm itself unleashed with some fury. The brief chorale-like passage in the brass that leads us in to the 'Sunset' swelled gloriously and the gradual fade into 'Night' was beautifully shaped, even if the orchestra seemed strangely reluctant to play quietly in the final few minutes.
The sheer, visceral thrill of an enormous orchestra negotiating this work can sometimes make up for a lack of interpretative vision. Haitink's not necesarrily the conductor for squeezing all the potential for excitement out of a score like this, and early on he had seemed to be watching his step a little, yet his conducting brought out much more than virtuosity from the LSO. He confirmed in his reading that Eine Alpensinfonie, while still not without its excesses, is possibly one of Strauss's most philosophically engaged orchestral works.
By Hugo Shirley