The Puzzling Mr. Brendel Battles Chaos at Carnegie Hall

Ever since Mozart, one of classical music’s most persistent myths has been that of the child prodigy whose gift is

Ever since Mozart, one of classical music’s most persistent myths has been that of the child prodigy whose gift is somehow a blessing of divinity. That this fairy tale is still with us was evident at a private concert held a few evenings ago at the Lotos Club to raise money for the Music Festival of the Hamptons. The black-tie audience could scarcely have been more sophisticated, but when Harry Chiang, a 5-year-old boy in black tuxedo and red bow tie, strode to the Steinway, hoisted himself up on the bench, positioned his feet on specially elevated pedals and launched into his program, the collective “a-a-a-ah’s” were so fervent that I understood Leopold Mozart’s euphoria as he shepherded his little Wolfgang around the great capitals of Europe.

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I’m not about to proclaim Mr. Chiang, who hails from Great Neck, L.I., as the next Mozart, but his impact was undeniable. There is something miraculous about seeing a child who is barely past the toddler stage exhibit a technique big enough to handle sixteenth-notes, a notion of when to play soft and when to play loud, a knowledge of the difference between staccato and legato, and a sense of what the music is about, even when it’s rudimentary fluff by Kabalevsky (“Variations on a Russian Folk Song”), Bartok (“Evening in the Country”) and Tchaikovsky (“Song of the Lark”). Showing impassive confidence, Mr. Chiang did more than just fine, though it was hard to tell how much of his startling forcefulness was learned and how much of it was felt. That he doesn’t yet have the seasoning of a professional was refreshingly demonstrated when he smudged a climactic octave and immediately corrected himself.

But what was most winning about Mr. Chiang was his innocence. Although he must have known that the man who introduced him-the composer and artistic director of the Hamptons festival, Lukas Foss-was an eminence of some sort, he can’t have realized how august, pianistically speaking, some of his listeners were. Mr. Foss is, of course, a former piano prodigy, as was the fellow sitting a few seats away from me, Byron Janis.

Just across the aisle was Eleanor Sage Leonard, who, besides being the festival’s founder and president, happens to be a grandniece of one of the country’s piano giants, Benno Moiseiwitsch. It was a crowd that would have made nervous wrecks of many far more developed talents than Mr. Chiang’s, but this tiny Wunderkind sailed on with blithe obliviousness.

Ah, innocence! It’s the condition we expect great art ultimately to reach: We want what is made to have a feeling of inevitability beyond even the control of its learned maker. In the final analysis, we judge a work of art on whether it has achieved a “life of its own.” This is a complicated business when it comes to assessing a classical music performance, for what is the work’s “life” but the conscious and unconscious drives of the composer? And who’s to say what exactly those drives were-especially when, as is usually the case, the composer has been dead for at least a hundred years?

No great pianist has exceeded Alfred Brendel for assiduous research into the intentions behind the music he plays. His collections of essays about the piano works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Lizst and others are remarkable for illuminating what the music demands of the interpreter, formally and biographically, and what the interpreter must bring to the music if it is to connect with an audience. (Mr. Brendel is not above correcting what he perceives to be a great composer’s mistakes in markings of tempo and dynamics, and even a rare blunder in notation.) He writes with clarity, pithiness and thoroughness-qualities that have distinguished a career that started slowly but, over four decades, has taken on immense stature, to the point that he is now regarded as one of the world’s three or four most important active pianists.

Yet, for reasons that have something to do with little Harry Chiang’s innocence, he remains a puzzlement. For the past several weeks, Mr. Brendel has been center stage at Carnegie Hall as recitalist, chamber-music colleague, lieder accompanist, orchestral soloist and even reader of his own poetry. I attended three of these events-two recitals and a performance of Schubert’s Die Winterreise with the young German baritone Matthias Goerne-and I’m still puzzled.

Mr. Brendel’s recital programs consisted of works with which he has long been completely at home, and on both occasions the hall was packed with listeners who, I assume, were veteran Brendelians, given the enthusiasm with which they greeted the arrival on stage of that tall, lean, slightly mad professorish figure. You would have thought that Mr. Brendel, warmed by the affection, might have sailed into his old favorites as something of a romp. But romping is the last thing this most determinedly serious of musicians does.

As pianists go, Mr. Brendel is not, I would say, a “natural.” Through the force of his intellect and the muscularity of his attack, he wills, rather than releases, the music into being. Ever the teacher, he has a tendency to italicize everything, such that I often come away from a Brendel performance greatly enlightened as to the music’s sinews but unwarmed by its flesh. Coming from a man who has unusually wide-ranging curiosities about art and literature and who collects esoteric objects, Mr. Brendel’s playing is that of a connoisseur; at every turn, you feel his obsessive interest in how the beautiful thing has been put together, in what makes it tick.

But Mr. Brendel, for all his reputation as the most cerebral of pianists, is also a highly emotional one, and what gives his concerts their often bracing sense of struggle is his Beethovenian belief that the purpose of art is to tame the ever-present threat of unruliness. A few years ago, in a New Yorker profile, he said, “Art gives a sense of order, life is basically chaotic, and there’s a tension between them. A sense of order comes from chaos and contains a bit of it, but it’s the sense of order that is important in a work of art.”

In that same article, he also spoke about his hypersensitive relationship with audiences: “The public sometimes thinks an artist is a television set-something comes out, nothing goes back. They don’t realize that if they can hear me, then I can hear them-their coughs, the electronic beeps from their wristwatches, even the squeaking of their shoes. I like the fact that ‘listen’ is an anagram of ‘silent.’ Silence is not something that is there before the music begins and after it stops. It is the essence of the music itself, the vital ingredient that makes it possible for the music to exist at all. It’s wonderful when the audience is part of this productive silence.”

Perhaps it was a beeping wristwatch; perhaps it was too many audience-shattering coughs from those respiratory muggers of New York concert life. In any case, throughout the first half of Mr. Brendel’s first recital program, and well into the second, I had the uncomfortable feeling that order was in danger of losing the battle. In Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Mr. Brendel addressed the master of surprise as if he were an overenergized uncle who wanted to amuse the children by jumping out of dark corners and shouting “Boo!” His four Schubert Impromptus, D.135, were fleet but heavy-footed. As he marched with blistering clarity through Schumann’s Kinderszenen , I felt he was more interested in demonstrating the virtues of playing these childhood vignettes without separating pauses, so as to show their harmonic and motivic connections, rather than evoking the specific mood and subtext of each miniature.

But then, as so often happens at a Brendel concert, the battle between order and chaos went up in smoke. In the penultimate Kinderszenen piece, “Kind im Einschlummern,” all of the pianist’s inner and outer struggles ceased, and there was nothing in the air but Schumann’s sublime line drawing of a child falling asleep, which ends so cunningly and unexpectedly on an A minor chord. With Mr. Brendel’s infinitely tender yet utterly unsentimental playing of that chord, the audience became productively silent and the recital reached a level of sublimity that it sustained through the spellbinding, tragedy-tinged final miniature, “Der Dichter spricht” (“The Poet Speaks”), and the two magisterial Mozart pieces that closed the program, the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, and the Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, which received the most spacious, epic reading I have ever heard.

In the two subsequent Brendel events I attended, the pianist seemed, from the outset, fully at ease. But nothing in them reached the heights of that first program’s cloud-clearing final moments. In an essay on Schumann’s Kinderszenen , Mr. Brendel remarks of the final A minor chord in “Kind im Einschlummern” that it “opens up like a mouth opened by sleep.” Only an uninnocent person could have come up with that metaphor, yet to achieve that effect at the piano requires, as Mr. Brendel knows better than anyone, the courage to reach back for true innocence.

The Puzzling Mr. Brendel Battles Chaos at Carnegie Hall