Apparently, he is not retiring, but will no longer be performing live broadcasts.
Over the years the logistics of attending the Proms have become clear: I should take a half-day holiday to get in to London from Reading, and depending on the concert, weather, etc., there may be time to potter around one or two minor attractions. In most cases one can be guaranteed a good viewing position in the arena joining the day queue by 5pm.
This was no ordinary concert, and I knew the above plan would not work. I arrived shortly after 3 and took up position close to the bottom of the steps leading down from the Hall. When the time came, my ticket was number 103.
The next person to turn up said he'd come down from Northampton; his first Prom was the Silk Road Ensemble's concert on Sunday, and he'd enjoyed it so much he'd stayed for the second one. He had heard that tonight was "quite special as it's this bloke's last concert". Something of an understatement.
Further down, an elderly lady (quite possibly older than Brendel himself, at 73) parked herself on a shooting-stick. "My husband's got a season ticket", she explained, as he meandered between the queues. "He keeps chatting to all those young girls", with mock suspicion.
A lady came down the queue collecting for "prezzies for the orchestra for the Last Night". She complimented me on my Proms T-shirt: "Is that this year's? Does it have the year on it anywhere? My first T-shirt said Proms 72 on the front." I indicated that it did, on the sleeve, "if you've got good eyesight". Somehow we strayed onto the topic of size - I had Large, which is the largest size available, but clearly would not have been spacious enough for her. "I hope it doesn't shrink too much in the wash". "Oh, don't wash it at all dear - be a real Prommer". How true.
At one stage I overheard a mobile phone conversation which began, "Hello, I'm in the Proms queue", which I can't deny has a certain cachet to it.
Well before the time to enter the Hall came, I observed the Arena Season Ticket queue stretched beyond the bottom of the steps, something I have never seen before. I took a quick look at the Day Ticket Queue - and I could not see where it ended. It may have merged into queues at bus stops along the road, or it may have gone as far as my eyes could see. The number of people who asked "is this the queue" is worth commenting on: what else did they think it was, I wondered?
As we moved up to enter the Hall, the final queueing anecdote was yet another person arriving and asking how long the queue was. A woman further down offered some advice: "Find a tout, dear. Go to the front of the Hall, look lost, wave a £20 note, and they will find you".
Fortunately I had "hand luggage only", so didn't have to divert for baggage checking, and after a surgical strike on the queueless programme seller, I obtained a space a few rows back and dead centre in the arena, a better than expected result in the circumstances. The arena audience was much more varied then usual, with many more elderly patrons. Fortunately, there was no risk of anyone collapsing during the concert: there simply wasn't room.
Simon Rattle says he was awakened to classical music by a performance of Mahler's Symphony No 2 (Resurrection); I felt a similar awakening when I first heard Brahms' Symphony No 3, the first work in the programme, in particular the development section of the first movement, one of Brahms' rare forays into Sturm und Drang, passionate yet always controlled. I feel many people underrate Brahms, and this work in particular. Perhaps because the entire audience came for the Beethoven, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi put considerable effort into the piece and it was a rewarding performance. The programme notes observed that the opening F-Ab-F chords (Frei aber froh, Brahms' motto) often turn into F-F-F because of the brass section, but not on this occasion. Brahms was not a musical revolutionary: he is the end of the line in the "classical" style of Haydn and Beethoven, when Wagner innovated. Yet the notes observe that Schoenberg was "deeply influenced" by Brahms. All movements in this work end quietly, and the audience was extraordinarily silent. There was no applause between movements, and no need for it. The applause at the end of the symphony was warm and appreciative.
Whenever someone says "Harrison Birtwistle", I always think of an Alex cartoon where a concert-goer's mobile phone ringing the 1812 overture "completely ruined that experimental Harrison Birtwistle piece for me" (sadly I can't find that particular cartoon on the site, I think it's too old). The first of his Brendel Settings was commissioned in 2001 for Brendel's 70th birthday along with pieces by Adès and Berio, and was a bit screechy. The second two were BBC commissions and premieres, and I think both of them worked better. William Dazeley's singing and facial expressions during the surreal A sheep addressed me as follows ... were particularly enjoyable, and though I imagine the audience was generally musically conservative, this piece in particular did seem to go down quite well.
But anyone who had come for any reason other than to see Alfred Brendel as the soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5 (Emperor) had picked the wrong night. "Do you think we have a good line of sight to him?" I was asked (obviously wearing the T-shirt made me an expert for the night). "No", I replied, "the season ticket holders [who get to stand at the front left of the arena] will have the best view, but we should hear really well". In the event, the piano was placed more centrally than I had expected, so the view was better than expected (though we didn't see his fingers except when they had leapt some distance from the keyboard) and the sound produced by the Steinway in the Hall was simply amazing. Beethoven's early works clearly show the influence of Haydn and Mozart; conversely, it isn't a big jump to hear premonitions of Chopin in this, the last of his concertos. In places it's dramatic, but often very cantabile. There may have been a couple of notes in the performance that weren't written by Beethoven, but that happens all the time, and keeps the editing studio busy before CDs are released. Once again, the applause was timed to perfection: the piece was properly completed, but there was no pause before the clapping (and stamping) began.
Nicholas Kenyon, BBC Proms Director, made a presentation of concert programmes in a red folio to Brendel, describing them as "This is Your (Proms) Life". Brendel, who had looked perhaps a little tired and infirm during the applause, sprang back into life for an encore of Schubert's Klavierstucke in Eb minor, D946, proving that, whilst the piano maker J B Cramer described Beethoven's Fifth as "an emperor among concertos", Brendel is still an emperor among musicians.