LONDON, 11 February 2001-
One Belgravia night, going in to dinner, I caught a frosty look in
Alfred Brendel's eye. Something the matter? I wondered.
you wrote," he grumbled. "In the Sunday Telegraph, you once
categorised all pianists as eggheads or fruitcakes - and put me among
This was unnerving. I'd had
death-threats from several well-known crackpot pianists demanding an
upgrade to brainbox, but to find Brendel wanting to dumb it among the
clowns and cuckoos was almost enough to make me revise the whole
Brendel is, he can scarcely deny, a man who
breakfasted with Isaiah Berlin and credits Ernst Gombrich as his
bibliographical advisor on sources of laughter. Not your average
plinker-player with a tabloid under his stool and posh totty in the
Months passed before I appreciated the cause of
his anxiety. A BBC busybody, bidding to become head of Radio 3, would
issue a ban on Brendel as a talk-show guest on the grounds that he was
"too intellectual" - the ultimate English pejorative,
equivalent to Stalin's "rootless cosmopolite".
foreigner, resident on the edge of Hampstead Heath, Brendel must have
learned that it does not pay to appear to know much in this country;
and what you do know is best kept between the covers of a book, or
behind the doors or a concert hall where no more than a fragment of
the populace will ever venture. Better to be known as a wacko than as
a contemplative artist with a mind of your own.
one of the twice-blessed handful who can claim to have it both ways.
His seriousness is above reproach, founded upon a lifelong involvement
with Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert that cast him in the high-minded
mould of Arthur Schnabel. Unlike Schnabel, however, Brendel likes the
flimsy bits as much as the titanic masterpieces.
compendium of essays, written over 30 years, he makes a case for
Mozart's diddly sonatas by tracing in them the outline of a symphonic
structure. In Beethoven's thorny Diabelli Variations, on the
other hand, he discerns 'a musical paradigm' of humour. Don't laugh.
What Brendel means is not impish mirth or caustic wit but the mordant
glare of a doomed Romantic who sees a world full of foolishness,
witheringly pitiable in a droll sort of way.
These are novel
observations, derived from a compassionate interest in humanity and a
twinkle in the eye that protects audiences from the logical pursuit of
self-destruction. The first thing I ever heard Brendel play over the
radio was Beethoven's Variations on Rule Britannia. The second
was the Diabelli Variations. What perplexed me was that he
seemed to adopt the same approach to a frivolous salon piece as to a
work commonly invested with high seriousness.
In one of
these essays, he explains why. Brendel applies a tee-hee, ha-ha test
to the music he plays. If the expostulations fit, the music must be
comic (don't try this at home).
Fruity as his theory sounds,
it does not quite turn Alfred Brendel into Victor Borge - let alone
Vladimir Pachmann, who used to drape a smelly sock across his concert
grand, claiming its was Chopin's. Brendel exhibits a more delicate
turn of wit, demolishing in a memorably wry paragraph the 1980 New
Grove entry on piano playing - a review so devastating that the
article was replaced at the first reprint.
He reveres the
smouldering intellects of the showmen-composers Liszt and Busoni, and
describes the wavery conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as "the
performing musician who, more than any other, provided me with the
criteria for judging a performance." But in the very next
paragraph, he rejects the totality of Furtwängler's intellectual
outlook, starting with the central importance of the German Geist in
the pantheon of European art. This, argues Brendel, is something that
German Romantics had in common with the Jews - the sense of being
There are comparable surprises and delights on almost
every page of this rich book, but I would not advise you to read it
from start to finish, any more than I would recommend a piano recital
made up entirely of encores. This is a packaged tour of the mind of a
working musician who spends many of his waking hours asking, why?
What I miss here is Brendel's faith in contemporary art. He
was once overheard telling Isaiah Berlin, as they left Harrison
Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, that this was the first great
English opera for 300 years, including Britten's. At 70, Brendel may
perhaps be past mastering Birtwistle's prickly piano concerto, but I
wish he would vent his modernist passions more openly in print.