In his essay “Musical Character(s) in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas”(2000), Alfred Brendel wrote, “It is the interpreter’s responsibility to play the roles of different characters. Like every person, it would seem, every sonata has distinct qualities and potentialities. Each character lives and breathes as a sum of its attributes.”
In early November, the illustrious pianist, who turns 80 on January 5, returned to Juilliard to give a pair of master classes, in which he applied his musical ethos to personify each work—a pair of sonatas and a movement from a string quartet by Beethoven, and three Schubert lieder.
Master’s student Michael Brown opened the first class with a polished performance of Beethoven’s F Major Sonata, Op. 54, among the most unusual and least-played of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. For Brendel, the two-movement work is one of the most interesting character studies of the set. “This is a piece that does not have a musical development in the conventional sense, but it has a psychological development,” he explained to the packed audience in Room 543.
This sonata, he said, has a feminine and a masculine character (the former ultimately prevails), noting that it has been called La Belle et la Bête—The Beauty and the Beast. As Brown navigated the punctuated double-octave passages signifying a masculine protagonist, it seemed he had awoken the beast within Brendel himself, who jolted from his bench with a mad urgency—at one point nearly tackling Brown—as if possessed by a character in the music that most closely resembled Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. “Beethoven’s sforzandi should always be prepared and not come completely out of the blue,” Brendel ordered, patting insistently on Brown’s back. “DA-da-da da-da-da! DA-da-da da-da-da!” he said, “It makes it more human.”
While Brendel delights in unveiling the character behind Beethoven’s textless mini-dramas, he is equally at home with Schubert’s lieder. At the second class, master’s students Brent Funderburk (collaborative piano) and Lauren Snouffer (soprano) presented a trio of Schubert songs. Snouffer, whose voice maneuvers the contours of a melody with rare agility, responded capably as Brendel implored her to convey more of the subtleties implied by the German text. Speaking of Schubert’s “Heimliches lieben,” Brendel said, “What is this song about? It is a love song, but it is not the Virgin Mary that is loved. There is a woman who has a secret love the lover cannot admit. It is a very passionate feeling disguised as a lovely tune—but the passion should simmer underneath.”
Brendel empahsized Beethoven’s experimentalism in his session with the Afiara, Juilliard’s graduate resident string quartet. The ensemble gave the first of the three “Razumovksy” quartets (the F Major, Op. 59, No. 1) an energetic performance on the second day of master classes. “Beethoven always knew how to develop and experiment with forms and structures, which enabled him not to repeat himself, either in his sonatas or in his quartets,” Brendel said. “I don’t know any other composer who had this kind of memory for what he had done before.”
Brendel had also emphasized Beethoven’s experimentalism when master’s pianist EunAe Lee performed the composer’s penultimate sonata, Op. 110 in A-flat, advocating for the denial of the piano sound as the principal means of expression. “Always think in terms of an orchestra, of a string quartet, of voices, and when you can help it,not of the piano,” he said. “The piano sound has to be transformed and transcended.”
It is in this spirit of transcendence that Brendel read the final movement of Op. 110, an Arioso and Fugue that gradually unravels into ecstasy. “There is a pulse, which is one of the best things a musician can have. It is comparable to the spine, or to the heartbeat,” he said, holding Lee’s shoulders. “It can be pliable; it can be modified—but … it always remains the spine.”
As Brendel waxed anthropomorphically, he seemed to have stopped addressing Lee and his ruminations entered a mystical realm. “The last chord is the last effort at getting rid not only of counterpoint but of music, of life—everything. It’s a kind of self-immolation,” he said. “It should be like the last liberation.