“Piano Recitals & Rethinking What To Perform”

I not only love Alfred Brendel’s piano playing, but also love his writing, especially in the “New York Review of Books.” I once had an opportunity to chat with him in London. He said I was “stalking” him. I replied I was not following him except inside the concert halls of the U.S. and Europe. A subtle distinction, yes, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

We talked about how he (and others) choose their programs when performing. Surprisingly, he isn’t a fan of playing a cycle of something in the proper sequence. He says that approach doesn’t take much thought, and it’s something we can readily do with albums at home. But he tells a great story about how Clara Schumann freaked when she heard Anton Rubinstein would be playing four Beethoven Sonatas in one program. Her response: “Doesn’t one Beethoven Sonata need one’s entire soul?”

Despite his general dislike for playing entire cycles, when I saw him in London he was touring the world, playing Beethoven’s entire 32 Sonata cycle. I thought I was witnessing history, but he was quick to point out I wasn’t. Apparently, Sir Charles Halle performed that cycle back in the 1840s. Liszt’s student Marie Jaell did the same in 1873. In the 1890s, it was Eugen d’Albert and Edouard Risler. For students of comparative BAM (blowing audiences’ minds), it was more jaw dropping in 1911 when Busoni performed half a dozen Liszt recitals. None of Liszt’s students ever dared do such a thing. And then there was Anton Rubenstein’s attempt to cover “the history of piano music” in seven recitals. Check this out for ONE performance, on ONE afternoon, the Beethoven recital, in which he played the following Sonatas: op. 27 No. 2, 31 No. 2, 53, 57, 101, 109 and 111. And a student of Anton Rubenstein, who performed 23 pieces by 17 composers.

But my favorite program, one that Brendel once cited in the “New York Review of Books,” was some dude named Wilhelm Bund. In 1926, a concert of his started with a lecture in which Bund slammed the Viennese critics, all of whom are actually mentioned by name on the program, end ended with a piece by the pianist which Bund described this way: “Longing to die in voluptuousness, rearing and sinking back, shimmy-foxtrot as song of destiny, orgiastic dance (disrupted), exclamations of desire, desperate struggle, apoplexy.” But Brendel swears up and down he would have attended that concert in a heartbeat if he could lose the memory he has of a friend of his who insisted on performing an all Carl Czerny concert in the 1950s.

Here’s where Brendel and I differ. I think, on some level, he’d characterize these program choices as flawed. I, on the other hand, see the value of continually shaking things up. Why NOT convey a disrupted orgasm (or whatever Bund was talking about)? Why NOT play all Czerny? For that matter, why is it that when a program includes a Haydn Piano Sonata and the Beethoven Op. 106, the Beethoven ALWAYS is played after the Haydn? Think of how differently that Haydn would sound if you shifted the entire perspective and dynamic of your program by playing the Haydn last! And I am not trying to shake things up merely because I’m an entropy fan; I want to shake things up because that’s what inspires. I am certain that someone sitting in that Czerny concert, maybe a kid, thought to herself “Well, if THIS passes for serious music, then the music I’m writing is better than I thought it was. I need to get it heard!” Music inspires in demented, bizarre ways sometimes. Art does too. We make such conservative choices sometimes about how we choose to “consume” art of all kinds. Life is too short for that. Art is about feeling, and it’s about memory. But the feeling can be an angry one. The memory can be painful. Why have we put into collective storage 85% of all that we are capable of feeling? And why do we agonize about why certain arts are “dying” when the answer is so obvious?

Humanist, social scientist, pianist, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, tenured/commissioned U.S. Foreign Service Officer, widowed father and knowledge seeker.