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Book Review: Alfred Brendel On Music: Collected Essays

By Norman Lebrecht

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.

"Something you wrote," he grumbled. "In the Sunday Telegraph, you once categorised all pianists as eggheads or fruitcakes - and put me among the intellectuals."

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 generic theory.

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 green room.

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".

As a 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.

Brendel is 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.

In this 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 Chosen.

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.

Alfred Brendel On Music: Collected Essays.

Robson Books (pb), £16.95. 418 pp .
London, 2001

Alfred Brendel on Music: Collected Essays

Norman Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was published by Simon & Schuster.

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