No pianist could choose a more challenging program than the one Alfred Brendel played yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center: Beethoven's last three piano sonatas and the Opus 126 Bagatelles that were his last work on the instrument.Liszt or Prokofiev may demand more speed, greater strength; no music tests an artist's vision more acutely than these works which ask and answer the basic questions of what music is all about.
There were no surprises in the performance; Brendel owns this music as fully as any man living, and he played it lucidly, with deep feeling, total control, every accent precise and beautifully placed, the various blending and contrasting voices of the music picked out in clear relief.
A particular feature of the last three sonatas, most notably of the middle one, Opus 110, is the way they explore and unite contrasts - the rather operatic voice of pure feeling, for example, and the rather fugal voice of pure form.
One way you separate the good pianist from the great one is to hear them play this music and check whether they can blend these elements seamlessly while preserving their distinctive character. Brendel's reading yesterday demonstrated, not for the first time, that he is one of the great ones.