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Symphony Review: Brendel brings poet's touch to work by Mozart

Saturday, March 22, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

All music moves to the ticking of time, but the best music contains moments, transfiguring measures that raise the listener's experience to new heights. They can be loud or quiet, sublime or noble, melodic or harmonic, but when they exist, it's the performer's job to bring them out in all their spine-tingling glory.

Pianist Alfred Brendel was not only the man of the moment last night at Heinz Hall, he was the man of moments.

With an interpretation so inwardly musical and a touch so delicate, he masterfully set the table in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 for flights of profundity that exist in the score but are rarely unleashed.

With music director Mariss Jansons a willing conduit, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra matched Brendel timbre for gentle timbre. And, they got out of the way. Or more accurately, they rolled out a red carpet of respect so that Brendel was able to concentrate only on his part.

Much has been made of the Austrian-born, London-based virtuoso Brendel's affinity for writing poetry. Those of us who have listened to him over his glorious career, however, know that the 72-year-old pianist has always been a poet. He proved it again with a well-judged phrasing, a discreet tone.

The absence of flashy playing meant that the drama that Mozart put into the piece came to the fore. When Brendel plays, you notice the music, not the performer, and that's as far away from dry and boring as you can get when performing the likes of Mozart. These moments I speak of can be subjective, of course, but how touching was his impossible tender playing of the second thematic area in the first movement and in the episodes of the rondo finale.

Bruckner's colossal Symphony No. 7 that followed is more akin to the Mozart than you'd first think. Both Austrians, Mozart and Bruckner wrote with a purity of sound and a simplicity of texture. Just Bruckner did so on a much larger scale. Where they also differ is in difficulty level. Bruckner could never match Mozart's natural and organic composing, and Jansons and the PSO struggled through half the symphony with ensemble.

The other issue, especially in the opening movement, was Jansons' micromanaging. While he created a tremendous sound from the orchestra -- really throughout the work -- he tried to make too many moments out of the material. With dramatic dynamics and pregnant pauses or slowdowns, he never let the symphony gain momentum, so important to Bruckner's opuses. It felt, in short, like Jansons' personal Bruckner, instead of one we all could enjoy.

I was still moved by the crescendo near the end of the second movement (no, I don't care much about Wagner tubas), and the last two movements did get on track. The emotional release of the third movement, for performers and audience, was palatable, and the PSO strings were dark and scintillating.

The chorale-like theme of the finale floated above the texture as the work closed. I do think, considering the events of this week, that some of the ensemble problems came from lack of concentration. The symphony will likely improve upon the mediocre performance this weekend and when they take this work on its upcoming European tour.

The concert repeats at 8 tonight.

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