It feels as if we have been saying farewell to Alfred Brendel for years. It was 2004 when he made his last appearance at the BBC Proms, citing a wish for his performances no longer to be heard in live broadcasts, but this year it is for real as this much-loved pianist prepares to retire.
Sunday’s concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, marked his farewell to London; the same programme, repeated in Basingstoke last night, was his farewell to the UK. His very last public appearances are scheduled for Vienna in December.
For the occasion he turned to Mozart and the Piano Concerto in E flat, K.271, sometimes known as the Jeunehomme – an irony in view of the combined years of experience of the pianist and conductor on stage. Neither, however, has rested on his laurels when playing Mozart in tune with the changing styles of performance during their lifetimes.
Everything that has made Brendel the player he is could be heard here: clarity of thinking, seriousness of purpose, precision of execution. In the central slow movement, where the 21-year-old composer makes a leap to the heights of his maturity, Brendel seemed to be pushing each phrase to the limits of its potential, as if he had to catch every shade of meaning now as there would be no return visits.
In case we had not noticed, some noisy groaning capped the high points. But what eloquence he found in those lonely phrases echoed by the vibrato-free violins near the end of the slow movement, and the cadenza seemed fit to burst with intensity. He offered just one encore, a Bach-Busoni transcription steeped in deep contemplation. Then there was a brief acknowledgment of the standing ovation and Brendel was gone.
The rest of the concert was not to be sniffed at. Mackerras started with a buoyant performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.104 and ended with the most joyous Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony, decisively played by the Philharmonia Orchestra, that can have been heard at the RFH in a long while. Mackerras will be with Brendel in Vienna in December – the last match for a winning team.