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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Last of the great pianists

By Norman Lebrecht / October 29, 2008

The last of the great pianists are taking their final bows. The last? Well, for 40 years and more, Alfred Brendel and Vladimir Ashkenazy have ploughed their way on record through the entire classical and much of the romantic repertoire, endowing civilised homes the world over with essential culture at the spin of a disc.

Both recorded all 32 Beethoven sonatas and 27 Mozart concertos - in Brendel's case, twice. They also covered Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and, in Ashkenazy's case, Chopin. The Russian exile branched into Musorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Skryabin and Shostakovich. The Austrian émigré saw to Haydn, some Dvorak and the infinitely challenging piano concerto of Arnold Schoenberg.

Brendel and Ashkenazy were the music industry's workhorses, a pair of infallible brands, never poorly reviewed. Ashkenazy played exclusively on Decca. Brendel first on Vox, then, in maturity, on Philips. Both based themselves early on in London for ease of travel and the amenities of social life. Ashkenazy took up conducting in the 1980s and now leads the Sydney Symphony Orchestra while living mostly in Iceland, a bipolar existence. Brendel has a sideline in whimsical writings, much praised by the present Poet Laureate, and serves a leftish section of the British establishment as its resident musical oracle.

So long as records boomed, the two men played to order, turning out new releases in their endless cycles practically every other month. Others - Argerich, Barenboim, Pollini - made large piles of records, but none ploughed the opus numbers so methodically, so integrally and so consistently as Ashkenazy and Brendel until, in the past decade, the labels dried up or started taking their talent off reality TV.

Ashkenazy, 71, has given up the piano after being diagnosed with degenerative bone disease in three fingers. Brendel, 77, plays his farewell concert next month in Vienna.

I admired them both, and for very different reasons. Ashkenazy's touch was one of the wonders of the age. He made the opening of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata sound as if years of practise and reflection had gone into the phrasing of a melody so simple any page-turner could have played it. Yet what we heard was not the contortion of false complexity but the clarity of an uncluttered mind, a pellucid interpretation.

His 1970s Rachmaninov concertos with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra were revolutionary in their discretion, for Ashkenazy shunned showboat pianism and brought a conversational ease to these troubled pieces. He restored solo Skryabin to circulation and his late interest in Shostakovich, the wartime second sonata and beyond, tapped insights and delights that I never heard elsewhere. Up to his final record this year, Ashkenazy always gave the impression of pushing out boundaries, even as he industriously reinforced the old canonic fences.

Where Ashkenazy made a virtue of reticence - he gave fewer interviews than anyone except the reclusive Horowitz - Brendel could not help but grip the eye with his tall, stooped frame, his sleeve-tugging fidgets and his myopic squints into the hall, as if to assure himself that the audience had not gone home. He was a showman with a highbrow aura. I found his Schubert irresistible, as much for its idiomatic lyricism as for a communicated sense of the seamier side of Vienna. Brendel had an uncanny knack for dictating mood. With the dozen notes of an opening phrase, the first gloss of buffered hammers on wire, you knew what kind of evening it was going to be, whether in concert or on record.

He was fortunate in his recording partners, never more so than with the unfussy Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with whom he explored the Mozart concertos, culminating in a K595 that flutters hints of paths untaken. For all the Grammys that crowd his Hampstead mantelpiece, the records that stick most in my mind are the ones from his early Vox days in Vienna when a hungry young Alfred recorded Liszt's firework transcriptions of opera arias and an unforgettable Beethoven Emperor Concerto with an ad hoc orchestra made up of moonlighters from the Vienna Philharmonic and an unknown Zubin Mehta on the rostrum. Brendel proved then that he could play anything a producer put in front of him, with care and conviction.

But the days of wholesale recordmaking are over and will not return. There will never be another Brendel or Ashkenazy - which, for all that I admired them, is no bad thing. Music was not meant to be played wall to wall. After a while, inevitability sets in.

Immaculate Brendel and Ashkenazy discs would arrive like clockwork with all the wrong notes edited out and an artist-approved photograph staring businesslike from the cover or eyes-down at the keyboard - a deadly serious frontage that seemed designed to deter casual listeners. The seamless flow of product diminished the distinction between one work and the next. Looking back at the catalogue, it is less easy than you might think to extract nuggets of pure gold from a mountain of perfect slate.

Although Brendel and Ashkenazy wax rich on royalties, I wonder if they might not agree with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the busy German baritone, who admitted sadly to me that he had done too much for his own place in history and left too little for the next generation to emulate and exceed. I would hesitate to suggest that Brendel and Ashkenazy each made 50 records too many. For the record, they are measurably the last of the great pianists. But greatness, in the post-record era, has moved on. The power of music is being redefined as you read this in less mechanical, less perpetual criteria.


Ashkenazy's best

Rachmaninov 2nd concerto (with Kondrashin, Moscow, 1963)

Beethoven Kreutzer sonata (with Perlman, London 1973)

Shostakovich 2nd sonata (Suffolk, 2003)

Brendel's best

Liszt opera transcriptions (Vienna, 1961)

Schubert A-major sonata (Snape,1999)

Schoenberg concerto (with Kubelik, Munich, 1971)

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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