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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 6

Alfred Brendel - A Musical Paradox

by Lucie Renaud / March 1, 2001

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Considering the phenomenal number of articles written about Alfred Brendel, it might seem futile — or at least not particularly useful — to take yet another look at this incomparable pianist. He is an artist whose peers hold him in the highest regard. He is a perfectionist when it comes to technique, and a musical interpreter of profound sensitivity. In fact, he challenges the standards, expectations, and unspoken laws of the classical music jungle and emerges greater than ever, yet able to maintain a disconcerting frankness and modesty.

Brendel has a remarkably fine-tuned “ear,” not only when performing but with regard to life in general, and he leads parallel lives that are mutually enriching. He is a chamber player (he recently joined with baritone Matthias Goerne, to the delight of fans of the vocal art); he performs with orchestra (in April he will perform all of Beethoven’s concertos with Seiji Osawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and as a soloist (recitals in Montreal and Ottawa are scheduled for March and April). Brendel is also an essayist (Thoughts and Afterthoughts has been providing absorbing reading for musicians and music-lovers for over thirty years); a new-fledged poet (his collection, One Finger Too Many reveals his wild sense of humour); a collector; and a great reader, especially of works that deal with the mystery of life and eternity. His multi-faceted nature makes him one of the most well-rounded artists of his generation. It was an immense privilege and pleasure for La Scena Musicale to share a few moments with him recently.

Listening to othAlfred Brendeler pianists

Brendel, who was born in Moravia in January 1931, swam against the prevailing musical current from the beginning. He started taking lessons at the age of six and almost immediately began exploring composition. As his father’s various trades took the family from Yugoslavia to Austria, he switched teachers and towns fairly frequently. After the age of sixteen, however, he had no more teachers. “A teacher can have too great an influence,” he told us. “I was self-taught, and I learned to be wary of anything that I hadn’t understood myself.” He found something more useful than teachers: listening to other pianists, especially Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot, and Wilhelm Kempff. Brendel speaks reverently of these keyboard giants. “They were well-rounded musicians, not just piano virtuosos; some were also chamber musicians, some of them conducted. They were masters of the piano sound as I see it, they could orchestrate on the piano. They respected the composers and didn’t place themselves first, but they were anything but boring and not mere carbon copies of the music.”

Brendel continues to be described as an “intellectual” pianist. He only entered one international competition, the Bolzano in Italy, and on that occasion he ranked fourth (a first prize was not given). His choice of repertoire has always seemed at the opposite end of the spectrum from the virtuoso fireworks of some of his colleagues. Apart from a few forays into the contemporary repertoire – Brendel was an ardent defender of Shoenberg’s Concerto almost from the beginning, for example – his choice of music has always focused on the great classical composers: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and, of course, Beethoven (he has done several complete renditions of the thirty-two sonatas, both in concert and in recordings). He doesn’t play the Russian and French repertoire or Schumann and Brahms, yet he has always included the much-neglected Liszt in his programs.

Recordings as springboard

Recordings, rather than competitions or the musical star system, have served Brendel as a career springboard. Long before his American début in 1963, the public was familiar with his many recordings of Beethoven and Liszt for the Vox label. However, he takes the technological strides of the recording industry with a grain of salt.

“There have been gains and losses,” he says. “A computer that edits quickly is a great gain. But still, some of those recordings from the ‘30s and ‘40s, or some Kempff recordings from the ‘50s, are unsurpassed. A live recording, if executed at the right moment, proves the abilities of the pianist.”

Even though his repertoire only covers a few centuries, as a listener Brendel admits to being particularly fond of works so contemporary that the ink is barely dry. “A little less than 100 years ago, music was breaking away from tonality and harmony. It was one of the most amazing events in the history of art, and I’m still fascinated and excited by it. I know much more of it now and that gives me the opportunity to judge what is new, something that has never been done before or combined in that particular fashion, which opens up a new aspect to the listening of music. To understand what makes a masterpiece, I use the same criteria: has it been done elsewhere, is it like another piece by the composer or does it present something unexpected and necessary?”

Literature and kitsch

Despite his stature as a pianist, Brendel has always seen beyond his piano keyboard. Writing non-fiction and more recently poetry, as well as being an art-lover, has opened up horizons that he feels are essential to him. “I need these to nourish my thoughts and my senses as well as for aesthetic pleasures,” he says, noting that he has always been fascinated by things that go beyond the limits of Nature. “I strive to hit a combination of sense and nonsense,” he says. Brendel also collects masks and the cartoons of Edward Gorey and Gary Larson (the hilarious American author of The Far Side), as well as kitsch objects, because, he says, “Kitsch sharpens the perception of what is genuine and what is not. The perception of what is kitsch and what is not has been lost by most.”

Alfred Brendel

Brendel hopes to continue these horizon-widening activities for many years. “I try to be as fresh and as naive as possible every time I return to a piece. I am not prepared to be satisfied with anything, I think one should go on and try to improveÉ remaining humble while facing the masterpieces.” Such words of wisdom seem completely natural coming from this Titan of the piano, a larger-than-life personality who is always profoundly human. Going beyond time and fashion, it could have been to him that the great pianist-composer Busoni dedicated his definition of a pianist: “The pianist must have unusual intelligence and culture, feeling, temperament, imagination, poetry, and finally that personal magnetism which sometimes enables the artist to inspire four thousand people, strangers, whom chance has brought together, with one and the same feelingÉ If any of these qualities are missing the deficiency will be apparent in every phrase he plays.” In our competitive world, it is reassuring to note that, despite everything, Brendel can fulfil all his responsibilities and still touch the hearts of the faithful fans who throng to his recitals. The art of the piano lives on.

His recital program

Brendel’s appearance in Montreal will be a landmark occasion. He humbly admits to not having played here often over the years. The humour of the situation immediately surfaces. “Montreal has been for me a place of mishaps. My first orchestral concert in America was in Montreal with Zubin Mehta (I was performing the Brahms’ D Minor Concerto) and in the middle of the performance a very important key, in the middle of the piano, got stuck and I had to lift it up all the time. When I returned to Montreal and played a recital, again there was trouble with the action of the piano. When I came back to play with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, at rehearsal a note stalled. There seems to be a jinx. Hopefully this time it will all work out!”

The program he is giving in Montreal on March 31 (and in Ottawa on April 14) is built around his favourite composers: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The second half of the program will be taken up with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a fifty-minute-long, monumental work that Brendel describes as “the greatest piano work ever written, nothing less!” He is coming back to this piece after ten years. “The piece stays in one key nearly the whole time and yet gives you the whole variety and so many characters that the public is not bored É hopefully! It is also a compendium of musical humour. Beethoven treats the theme with a certain amount of irony.”

The first half of the recital will include only music in a minor key, including Haydn’s Sonata in G Minor and Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor and Fantasia in D Minor. “Mozart’s sonatas are certainly some of the most difficult things in the repertoire. They’re very rarely played. People think that since they learned some of these pieces in their youth they are not really worthwhile for an artist. People who know something about piano playing share Arthur Schnabel’s view that they are too easy for children and too difficult for artists. Every note is so exposed, you can’t hide anything. Every little inflection has to be exactly right, not too much, not too little, exactly in place. It needs a great deal of experience and also technical maturity to get the feeling of what’s essential and how to apply it in every detail.”

The concert promises to be a memorable one...

Alfred Brendel will be performing on March 31 in Montreal and on April 12 in Ottawa.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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