Alfred Brendel: ‘I am a pessimist who enjoys being pleasantly surprised’

As he is feted with a lifetime achievement award, the peerless concert pianist Alfred Brendel reflects on life two years after retirement – the pleasures of art, going to concerts, the sonatas he still plays at home… and the particular joy of C minor.

Bewilderment is stamped on the famous wrinkled brow of Alfred Brendel KBE when he opens his north London front door. “Have you come with the luggage?” My bags and umbrella may constitute baggage, but hardly luggage. “I thought,” he continues, checking his watch anxiously, “yo
u might be the man with the suitcase. They said he’d come now. But he hasn’t…” Out of this halting dialogue, which begins to feel worthy of Pinter – to name only one of Brendel’s many illustrious, in this case lamented, friends – it emerges that he has just arrived back from Salzburg. His bags have been lost. Even the world’s most celebrated retired pianist is prey to airline incompetence.

Agreeing to listen out for the doorbell, we move into a graceful, small drawing room at the front of the house, more like a receiving room from another era where you might give your card to a maid and wait in hope. The contents of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves reflect his formidably well-stocked mind – poetry, literature, philosophy and countless art catalogues. Coffee and biscuits have been carefully laid out, enough for several visitors, by some invisible hand. But Brendel, dressed in his familiar, comfortable tweedy attire with a slate-grey jumper which complements his eyes, though he’d probably be appalled at the idea, is alone, dealing with comings and goings himself.

Whereas privately his friends delight in his clever, zany humour and mercurial mental energy, his public persona can seem a little remote. Today, however, suitcase problems aside, he is smilingly at ease. He has good reason. He has just been honoured with Gramophone magazine’s lifetime achievement award, the ultimate recording industry accolade, entirely fitting for a man whose studio career spans 52 years and who has probably issued more discs than any other single living pianist.

“It’s certainly gratifying to find one has not been forgotten already,” he says, a little of the old stiff formality returning. Seeing my expression of sheer disbelief – recalling the black-market tickets for his series of farewell concerts two years ago and the high-emotion response they engendered, the talk of a massive Brendel-shaped hole being left in concert life, knowing that he still has a huge following the world over who turn out to hear him lecture – he allows himself a warm, crinkly grin. Moreover, he is regarded by colleagues as the “musicians’ musician” as well as the “pianists’ mentor”. Not, then, so easy to forget.

Brendel’s thoughts, unexpected and spirited though they always are, follow a clear line. If you throw him a question, he will answer it and await the next one. He is precise and logical, his sentences well-shaped through a still strong and charming Austrian accent. His writings on music, published in two books and a collection, have become classics in their field. Now, to be sure of accuracy, he presents me with two freshly typed sheets of paper in a plastic folder headed “A Lifetime of Recordings”, with his name written in ink at the top, presumably lest it be mistaken for someone else’s.

In this mini-essay, a precis of his studio career written when he learned about the Gramophone award, he recalls the novelty of being given one of the new Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders in his late teens. Shortly after, a few days before Christmas, as he recalls, he was invited by the Nixa label to record Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 5. “I had never seen the piece and wrote back: ‘Please send me the music’.” Not, by his own admission, the most fluent of sight-readers, he worked hard over the holiday period to master it. At the end of January, with a conductor who was “charming, if not very competent”, and an orchestra who apparently fitted the same description, he made his first recording, reviewed in the December 1951 edition of Gramophone magazine.

A near seamless studio journey followed, mostly with the Philips and Decca labels, through three sets of Beethoven concertos, two each of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Schubert’s later piano works, the Brahms concertos, plus Haydn, Mozart, Liszt, Schumann – all composers whose work he has, with faithful advocacy, almost reinvented for a modern public. The absences are as interesting as the inclusions: very little Bach; virtually nothing in the way of French music or – for most pianists, a god – Chopin. Brendel has always stuck to music with which, as a performer, he feels kinship. That’s the end of the matter.

“The mix of spontaneity and control, concerts and recordings, keeps one in check. I was lucky that my last performances were captured live on disc, and survive as documents.” For a player too often, and misleadingly, accused of being an “intellectual”, this mix of restraint and freedom is vital. “I don’t feel guilty about being ‘intellectual’ if that means thinking about the structure and character and humour in a piece of music. But I’m not talking about dry analysis, which is relatively easy if you know how. I do the opposite. I familiarise myself with a piece and wait for it to tell me what it’s about, and what makes it a masterpiece. That’s what fascinates.”

Brendel may have performed his final concert in 2008, conducted by his beloved friend – another of the illustrious and lamented – Sir Charles Mackerras, but his diary is still jammed with public commitments: readings of his own epigrammatic and witty poetry (published as One Finger Too Many and Cursing Bagels, with a collected edition due shortly), evenings of speech and music with fellow musicians including, at next month’s Wimbledon music festival, his son, the cellist Adrian Brendel, as well as three lectures at the Wigmore Hall, London. His son and daughter also continue to run an annual festival at Plush, Dorset, where he has a country home.

Final, however, means final. He is no longer a concert pianist. He no longer needs to stick plasters on his fingers to practise, as he once did. The lid of his magnificent grand piano, in a studio crammed with books, CDs, African art, death masks and drawings of Liszt and Beethoven and memorabilia of a long career, is shut. A lush bank of garden foliage outside, dripping in the rain, seems to enclose and give privacy to this light-filled, upper ground-floor room, intensifying the silence. So, he has well and truly stopped?

“Not completely!” he explodes, chuckling. “In my lectures I play examples – maybe 60 or 70 of them. I have to know where they belong, and stay alert. And make sure my fingers still work. It’s not so easy…” But for pleasure? A Schubert impromptu or a Haydn sonata or one of those other works etched on his heart through a lifetime’s close encounter. He seems about to say no. “Well, I might play the slow movement of Op 106.” He is referring to Beethoven’s monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata, generally reckoned the most challenging composition of the entire solo piano repertoire. Why that in particular? “Because. Because there is no end to it.”

When Brendel makes a remark like that, an entire stampede of wild horses would not persuade him to elaborate. He resists maxims and hates soundbites. He has said, for example, that his favourite key signature is C minor. Can he explain what that means in terms a layman might understand? He strives. “Mozart’s pieces in that key, or those of Schubert and Beethoven, occupy a special sound world. But the way we measure pitch changes over time, so it’s not an absolute thing. These works belong to a certain family which we must call ‘sublime’. They have a particular kind of energy, which tries to rebel against fate. I cannot say more. These are approximations.”

One of his poems describes a trill in a Beethoven sonata (on the note E flat, in Op 111) so miraculous that the keys play the notes themselves while the mythical pianist levitates above the piano in a kind of ecstasy. Does he believe, as many do, in the mystical powers of music? Comically and momentarily, Brendel looks caught out. “I am a sceptic. I go to the edge, peer in and see what’s there. I am a great admirer of religious music without being religious. As a performer you are a musical character actor. When you play St Francis preaching to the birds [he’s referring to a Liszt “Légend”], you have to believe what you are doing, and be a convincing saint in a way which can turn it into poetry.”

Given his reputation as a pianist of immense control and finesse, did any aspect come easily or was it all slog? “Not all slog. But some skills I knew I had: a very good memory, not photographic but reliable. I would say I was lucky to have musical understanding, which came in part from having spent some years, as a young man, writing compositions. In fact in my very first recital [in Graz, when he was 17] I played my own piano sonata which had a double fugue in it.”

Typical… others might have settled for a little minuet. Where is it now? “I don’t know. Or if I do I am not showing it to you! Nowadays when a young pianist asks me for advice I say: try to compose something. You will profit from the experience of trying to make something go from first note to last.” He has a few pupils. While that in itself is no secret, and their names are easy to find, he refuses to talk about them for their own sakes, knowing the fragility of concert careers.

At the Gramophone awards, his one-time student and close friend, the concert pianist Imogen Cooper, described the experience of studying with Brendel: “We spent a full 20 minutes working on one single chord in a late Schubert sonata, he with demonic intensity, I with a kind of rigid terror, until I got it exactly right. Then, so help me God, I had to try to play the next one…”

Reluctant to enter into the current political fray about arts cuts or music education, he instead makes a typically incisive observation about the musical world at large. “I’m not a sociologist. I go to concerts” – he is one of the few who does, often seen leaping to his feet to lead an ovation. “I listen to some recordings. I coach string quartets and singers. I notice that, today, there are more violinists of a high quality. They used to all come from Russia or America but now the mix is diverse. Quite a few are ladies. Quite a few are good-looking, which wouldn’t influence me unduly…” He blushes and twinkles at this, especially since I make it clear I don’t entirely, or even slightly, believe him. His use of the term “ladies” is an example of his fluent but quaint English.

Before our hour is up, Brendel describes his close affection for the many pictures on his walls. As a young man he also painted, but now only collects: a Jean Arp collage of wonky symmetry “which puts me back in balance when I feel out of it”; works by Max Neumann and a large, bright canvas by Maria Lassnig, an abstract expressionist and fellow Austrian. Brendel predicts my unasked question. “Yes, I am still Austrian by nationality and passport.” This despite having lived in Britain, in this same house, or, strictly, two adjoined in Hampstead, for nearly 40 years.

Where, then, are his roots? He was born in Moravia, now in the Czech Republic, and lived mainly in Graz and Vienna. His family was not especially musical and the fact that his piano lessons, begun at six years old and lasting around 10 years, led to a career came as a surprise to all. He remains devoted to what tends to be termed the “Austro-Hungarian” musical tradition but points out that much of it – Beethoven, obviously – is German. “I am not rooted. I am very happy not to need any sort of soil.” Recently he experienced a more local upheaval. Now his three children, with his second wife Irene, have grown up and left home, they have sealed off and let one of the houses. “Thousands of books and pictures have been brought from next door. We have scaled down. It is still all very confusing. I get up to go next door and find there’s a wall.” Brendel has always said that he never regarded himself as “just a pianist”. He claims he was never “driven”, and therefore always had the freedom to stop whenever he chose. “My big fear was that without the adrenaline of giving concerts I would have more aches and pains. Luckily that has not happened. When once asked how I would like to die, I said, ‘in time’ – meaning not dragging on longer than is right.”

He pauses then demands: “Do you know how old I am?” Seventy-nine, I reply. “I am nearly 80,” he insists, as if my answer is wrong. Isn’t this a somewhat pessimistic approach? “I regard pessimism as a sign of intelligence. Optimism is a very welcome and life-enhancing feature, a gift, but not necessarily a realistic outlook.” He sees my perennially optimistic expression cloud somewhat. “OK, I am a pessimist who enjoys being pleasantly surprised.”

He chortles, then furrows his owlish brow again, looking out of the window on to the wet street, no doubt wondering all over again where his luggage is.

Fiona Maddocks | October 17, 2010


More Press