Written by: Friends, Colleagues and Admirers of Alfred Brendel
I have never interviewed Alfred Brendel, although I would be delighted to do so. Nor have I met him – unless you count holding a door open for him in the Usher Hall or being within three feet of him when sneaking a lady-friend of mine (a huge Brendel fan) into his dressing room (following a performance of the ‘Emperor’ with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO). It was a case of knocking on the door, pushing her in, and hiding (just in case Mr Brendel and myself ever do meet professionally); I kept my ears attentive, though; he was charming and signed his autograph with perfect grace.
I first heard Brendel through the medium of LP; I still own that particular ‘black beauty’ purchased about 25 years ago. I was in a favourite London record shop and was attracted by two then-new issues of Beethoven piano sonatas. Both contained the C major, Op.2/No.3. One was with Emil Gilels (DG), the other, of course, was Brendel, on Philips. I couldn’t decide which to buy, so I bought both. I played them back-to-back, made a wonderful musical discovery (the C major was new to me), and admired both performances; my vague memory is that Brendel just shaded the unintended but inevitable comparison. Probably something to do with his ‘reading’ of the notation (a comment not intended as disrespectful of Gilels).
Brendel’s genius is that his searching and analysis of his chosen repertoire is always to the music’s benefit; we know he is a great musician – and that much-abused word, great, is here apt, and it’s because Brendel illuminates rather than hijacks the pieces he plays. London recitals have been memorable – which would include any Haydn sonata he has played, Beethoven’s Op.109, Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques (including the posthumous variations, the whole in an order peculiar to Brendel), and a mesmerising account of Schubert’s A minor Sonata (D845) that was a revelation.
Brendel is, of course, a writer, his poetry having enticed composers such as Berio and Birtwistle. Although he now has a very settled repertoire, Brendel is no stranger in the audience for concerts of modern music – he is always curious of something new, something challenging. And he takes great delight in bringing out the humour and wit in music – one aspect that places him among the very greatest interpreters of Haydn and Beethoven. Brendel’s admiration of Wilhelm Kempff has fired my own; for that, much thanks, and I am delighted to salute one of the supreme musicians of our time – Alfred Brendel.
Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra:
Alfred Brendel is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. As well as a supreme pianist, he is also a great friend and supporter of British music and music-making; a wonderful influence for the next generation of pianists, especially in the classical style; an extraordinary recording artist; and above all an inspiring polymath and intellectual. The world is a richer place for him.
I first heard Alfred Brendel on LP playing the Schubert/Liszt Wanderer Fantasy and the Czárdás Macabre and on the strength of that I then acquired all of his later Philips Liszt and some of the Beethoven and Schubert series. To this day his playing of Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude remains for me an Everest of recorded Liszt playing.
His Beethoven and Schubert are more problematic, the sometimes-quixotic approach to rhythm and tempo can try the patience as does his refusal to play first movement repeats in Schubert. And yet when I heard him live for the first time he gave a performance of Beethoven’s First Concerto (with Sir Charles Groves) that was well nigh perfect. The phrasing was supple, the joyful pointing of rhythms infectious, the dynamic nuances were delicious and every tempo change was perfectly judged; this was spontaneous music-making which achieved greatness.
His repertoire until recently was very wide-ranging and he was an early champion of the Second Viennese School when it was still thought of as being ‘difficult’. He was also at the forefront of the promotion of the music of Liszt and the lesser-known Schubert and Haydn sonatas – his contribution to this evangelical work must count as a major achievement. As must his quite brilliant LP-sleeve and CD-booklet notes; and so too the many articles and books he has written and lectures he has delivered.
Nor should it be forgotten that Brendel has become one of the greatest of all Lieder players; his contribution to “An die ferne Geliebte” and “Schwanengesang” with Matthias Goerne at the Queen Elizabeth Hall several years ago helped make this one of the very finest song recitals I have heard. And on top of all this he has an incredibly wicked sense of humour, writes poetry and loves kitsch, all of which contribute to making Brendel both a great artist and, more importantly, a great human being, who we can only hope will grace the world’s concert halls for many years to come.
So Alfred Brendel is 75. Big deal! For some artists a birthday like this is a significant occasion. Toasts and plaudits galore! But for Brendel, one suspects that it is simply another day.
Few artists are held in the esteem as this always-interesting pianist. Some would argue that he is too thoughtful, possibly sacrificing emotional output for the sake of intellectual curiosity. But as one who as worked with him several times, I would suggest that just the opposite is true. His probing mind is always seeking to find a way to the heart of the music.
Whether it is the structural demands of a late Schubert Sonata, the virtuosity of a Liszt Etude, or the poetry of a Brahms Intermezzo, Brendel is never less than devoted to the musical intent of the composer. He has found ways to adapt today’s scholarship with an eye to past masters of the keyboard. The use of color has always been a hallmark of his unique sound. And his scrupulous attention to dynamic shadings never ceases to amaze.
Perhaps he is too much a musician’s musician. Very few pianists generate as much discussion as Brendel. It is as if we are always asking, “What is he going to do next?” I remember an account of the Brahms Second Concerto that we did together in Philadelphia. I was fully prepared for a specific approach that would actually go against the way I have thought of the piece. What I got instead was a fresh vision that engaged each and every one of the members of the orchestra.
That is his way. Whether at the keyboard of a piano or word processor: his mind is always searching. And, ultimately, we are the beneficiaries of that search. I suspect he is enjoying the well-wishes of this birthday, but he is more than likely either playing a concert, or at home, practising for his 100th birthday.