Brendel bows out

Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian and a keen pianist, made the pilgrimage to the Musikverein in Vienna for Alfred Brendel’s last public performance. He’s written a lovely account of the event.

At 8.13pm on Thursday night, one of the greatest pianists of his, or any, age sat down to play in public for the last time. Alfred Brendel spread his tails behind him, adjusted the stool and, for the final time, beamed his readiness to the conductor.

Two weeks before his 78th birthday, he was ready to bring down the final curtain while still at something like the peak of his powers. To choose such a moment of finality is, for a pianist, a comparatively rare thing. Arthritis gets some in the end; others die in harness; for some, the phone gradually stops ringing. Brendel decided he would rather be in control of the moment. His chosen exit was characteristic. Not for him a last Prospero-style pronouncement – not Beethoven's Op 111 or Schubert's D960, but instead, a youthful Mozart piano concerto, K271 in E flat.

There were demands for encore after encore, as you’d expect. In the end,he played

Liszt’s Au Lac de Wallenstadt. In an irony that would not have escaped him (he has written a poem on the subject), he played to the accompaniment of a ghostly mobile phone ringtone for a few bars.

He had first played Liszt in this hall 51 years ago. These last minutes marked not only the end of his career, but the severing of the thread that links generations of the great instrumentalists.

At the end of all the appplause – perhaps 20 minutes in all – Brendel smiled with what looked like a surge of relief and gestured down into the audience, which included all four of his significant pupils: Kit Armstrong, Imogen Cooper, Paul Lewis and Till Fellner. He seemed to be saying, “That’s me. Now it’s over to you.” And so the baton was passed on to the next generation. For Brendel, the rest is – in public, at least – silence.

Oh to have been there.