Brendel and the new Festival Hall

By Stephen Pollard
June 15, 2007

I agree with a lot of what Intermezzo has to say about Brendel last night, although I'm a little more upbeat:

The opening Haydn sonata, surprisingly chocker with bum notes even by Brendel's own carefree standards, was otherwise a model of delicacy and restraint.

The Beethoven, again delicately handled, was in interesting contrast to Paul Lewis's performance of the same work a few days back. Where Lewis offered fire and energy, Brendel rounds the edges and lightens the touch. Although Brendel's subtlety seemed a better fit, it was ultimately less engaging.

My idea of an Schubert impromptu is something that sounds improvised, freshly baked - Edwin Fischer's 1938 recording exemplifies this like no other - unfortunately Brendel's though skilfully cooked sounded frozen and reheated.

The closing Mozart sonata was the most completely realised piece of the evening. The extended a piacere in the final movement initiated an explosive coda which Brendel really made his own, the first time in the evening I really felt he was totally engaged at more than an intellectual level.

His swiftly taken encore, the No.2 A flat major Impromptu from Schubert's D.935 set, was equally absorbing, with a far looser, more relaxed feel than his earlier pair. At this point I would have quite happily listened to him for hours more, but sadly despite a load of enthusiastic applause he wasn't up for further encores.
Actually I preferred Brendel's Beethoven to Paul Lewis' (Lewis was, incidentally, a pupil of Brendel). Lewis seemed too impressionistic for me - Brendel last night had a real rigour. The piece seemed almost modern in his hands. As for the Schubert: yes, the encore was by far the best playing of the night - although I'm a sucker for that piece, as it brings back all sorts of nostalgic memories of my uncle playing it to us when I was a kid.

As for the rebuilding, however...

Overall, it seems a job well done. I was surprised at how familiar everything seemed. At first glance I wondered what all the fuss was about. But that, of course, was a sign of how well it had been done. Keeping the basis of the building but making it work better.

The acoustic seemed good. I was at the back of the stalls (my view, incidentally, was totally obscured by the tower of hair that Lord Gowrie, sitting in front of me, boasts) so am not able to say yet whether the old 'dead' areas are any better.

However, there were some very odd touches. Walking up the stairs, it was clear that they had used the same dreary old carpet. Not the same pattern, mind: the actual carpet. Frayed, stained and dirty. What a bizarre decision to spend millions upon millions on the project but not a few quid on some new carpet.

And the bars were as usesless as ever. In the interval there were two bar staff manning a bar with I would guess over a hundred people pushing around for drinks. The staff were pleasant enough, but useless - they took for ever to open bottles and take money, and when I asked for a tomato juice, the barman looked at me as if I was mad. "We have apple juice", he remarked, about as useful a response as telling me that there's a beach in Hong Kong worth visiting.

But overall, it seems they've got it right. They just need to tighten things up.

As for the audience, mind...What a rabble. There wasn't a spell of five minutes without someone sneezing as loudly as possible or sharing their hacking cough with the rest of us. Plus the usual mobile phones.

I will return to the subject of British audiences, a topic on which I can bore for Britain.


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