Alfred Brendel is a renowned pianist who is widely known and appreciated for his interpretation of Beethoven’s compositions, if you are searching for a new keyboard piano be sure to check out our recent post.
Even though he is a piano virtuoso, he stands out from the other pianists given his untypical background. Here is the story of the self-taught musician who has gained the respect of many.
Alfred Brendel was born on January the 5th 1931 in Vízmberk, Czechoslovakia, known today as the Czech Republic. When he was six, his family moved to Zagreb and, later on, to Graz where they lived throughout World War II. When he was just 14 years old, Brendel was sent to Yugoslavia to help dig trenches.
Even though he never had to serve in the war, the experience of living in countries governed by Nazis and Ustashi taught him to become a skeptic and to avoid the trap of believing blindly in grand ideas.
When compared to other renowned piano players, Alfred Brendel is an unusual case as he did not grow in a musically inclined family. In his youth, he took piano lessons, but he never had a formal music education and he was not regarded as a child prodigy. He did, however, take master classes with Eduard Steuermann and Edwin Fischer, yet, he is still considered self-taught.
Brendel gave his first recital in 1948, in Graz, when he first played his compositions, among works by Liszt or Brahms. Even though his creations were well received, he gave up on composing and focused on mastering the piano.
One year later, in 1949, he won 4th prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition that took place in Bolzano. After the competition, he moved to Vienna where, at age 21, he recorded Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5. In the years following his move to Austria, Alfred Brendel recorded Beethoven’s sonatas, as well as works by Brahms, Liszt, and Schumann.
Alfred Brendel’s big break came after his recital of Beethoven’s compositions at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Soon after, he moved to London and signed multiple deals with various music labels.
He currently resides in the U.K. During the ’60s, he became the first pianist to record all of Beethoven’s piano works. In December 2008, at 77, Brendel gave his last concert in Vienna. His last performance was voted as one of the greatest cultural moments of the decade by The Daily Telegraph.
Alfred Brendel’s style of playing the piano is deeply rooted in the analytical approach that he displays, and in the sensitivity that he shows when it comes to accurately capturing the tone of the pieces that he plays.
When he is on stage, the pianist is not theatrical, but rather reserved and concentrated on the task of playing each composition as precisely as possible. This is the reason why some critics referred to his playing as rather cynical and not necessarily passionate or emotional. Yet, it should be pointed out that the pianist does not concur with this assertion of his style.
In an interview from March 2008, he argued that the worst thing that he ever heard said about his playing was a remark made by Norman Lebrecht who called him a ‘cerebral pianist’.
What makes Alfred Brendel’s success story so intriguing and, at the same time, so humbling is the perseverance that he showed throughout his career. Even though success came later in life for him, he always knew that the key to recognition is hard work.
Although he is not plagued by deafness like Beethoven, the composer whose works brought about his recognition, since retiring from performing, Brendel suffers from an illness that makes it very challenging for him to listen to the piano.
Still, in his essays, he speaks about the innate memory of hearing and, in a way, about what could be called the soundtrack of his life that contains, among others, the sound of Edwin Fischer’s piano playing, Ralph Kirkpatrick’s recitals, or María Casares performance as Lady Macbeth.
At a close look, Alfred Brendel is a man of many talents. This is one of the reasons he is considered a modern Renaissance man. Apart from playing the piano, Brendel is also a poet and an essayist.
He made his debut in poetry at the age of 67, with Fingerzeig, a collection of poems published in 1996. Two years later, in 1998, he published Störendes Lachen während des Jaworts and, in 1999, Kleine Teufel.
His poetry work often encapsulates the absurd, the subversive and irony. Full of wit and sensitivity, Brendel’s poetic style descends directly from the avant-garde, in the sense that it defies convention. As a poet, Brendel refuses to adhere to the classical norm of being lyrical. Not afraid to take risks, the main sources of inspiration that he cites when writing poetry are film, theatre, and cartoons.
Brendel’s propensity towards the absurd is, once again, based on the experience of war. In interviews, he often states that, after seeing the atrocities of war as an adolescent, he became aware of the fact that the world is absurd and that the only means to escape from it is to laugh at its strangeness and to find joy in the alternative reality that is available solely through art.
Even though they have a whimsical tone and they seem to be written by a poet who never takes himself seriously, his creations still capture a profundity that is difficult to ignore. A man of music, Brendel does not shy away from writing, out of all themes, about silence.
In the poem Surrounded by all that noise, he captures the familiarity given to human interaction by empathy and silence. In a world where noises and words fail to help us communicate, the only means we have to genuinely interact with each other is given by the brief moments of intimacy, away from the prying eyes of others.
In another poem, Cologne, he whimsically captures the way in which, in some cases, the audience of a concert often ruins the beauty of the moment created by the players by coughing or clapping at inopportune moments.
In the interviews that he gave after the publication of his poems, Brendel explained that his poetry is not something that he decided to write consciously, but rather something that came to him throughout the years.
He also argued that his poems are only rarely autobiographical. In fact, in his relation with poetry, the author is often fascinated by the distinct life of his poems that, in many ways, instead of reflecting something that he feels as personal, seem to distance themselves from their creator.
A hard to encapsulate art, music is one of the subjects that oftentimes cannot be captured with the help of words. Seven years after his last concert, Alfred Brendel reemerged into the public’s attention with a collection of essays in which he speaks about his relation and understanding of music.
His book of essays is divided into three parts. In the first part of this collection of essays, he offers the reader a close assessment of the composers that he played in his career, from Mozart to Beethoven Schubert and Liszt. Given the complexity with which he approaches each of the composers, this first part is only fully accessible to those who have a good musical culture and who, consequently, know their repertoire.
The second part of the book is dedicated to fine discussions about what it means to perform, teach and record. As a performer of musical pieces that were written by other composers and not by himself, Brendel sees himself not as a passive recipient of the work, but as an engaged performer that does not consider faithfulness to the music as his main goal.
The final part of his essays takes the form of a conversation on the subject of music. Brendel’s views of what music, as art represents, should be read with extra attention, especially given that they are written by a man who lived most of his life making music at the highest level.
One aspect that makes this collection of essays a delight for all music lovers and connoisseurs is the fact that Brendel is one of the few performers who have the needed sensibility to talk about music in an intelligent way and with a conviction that expresses his level of expertise.