Review: Alfred Brendel on Music: His Collected Essays

Alfred Brendel's essays, spanning five decades of performance and reflection, get to the heart of the music, says Nicholas Lezard

Alfred Brendel on Music: His Collected Essays
(JR Books, £14.99)

Brendel is fond of dismantling musical prejudices. Among two he lists are "there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists" and "there are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors" (whoever made that last quip had never heard my own school's second orchestra, which I had the honour of leading. It was so bad we should really all have been taken out and shot, to prevent us from committing further crimes against music.)

But one line Brendel does not deign to mention is Steve Martin's assertion that "talking about music is like dancing about architecture", a remark which proves nothing more than that Mr Martin does not care very deeply about music. (And has never heard of Trisha Brown, who actually does dance rather successfully about architecture, in a way.) For if you love it, you have to talk about it. It's hard, though, particularly if you don't have the technical vocabulary, just the enthusiasm. Also, you try finding someone to talk to about classical music if you are simply a listener and don't already mingle in such circles. (My friend, the composer Robert Lockhart, is great to talk to on the subject, but he likes Rachmaninov and I don't, so instead we settle for abusing people who don't like Stravinsky.)

Which is why this book is so valuable. To make one thing clear, though: for all his chatty and approachable style, Brendel, one of the finest pianists of the age, is talking from a position of supreme authority. There is a lot of musical notation reproduced here, and a lot of stuff along the lines of "I note with regret that in bar 73 of A major II [Schubert] softened the staggering G major chord by turning it into a G sharp appoggiatura". Which isn't impenetrable but might put off the less committed. And when he discusses Haydn's C Major Sonata, Hob XVI: 50 (the very witty one that begins with a descending staccato C Major arpeggio and has lots of loud pedal in it), he precedes three pages of music with the words: "I would ask you to read, or play, through an edited version of it." No can do, Mr Brendel. It would be worse than molesworth 2 playing fairy bells.

But you mustn't let this put you off. If you have anything more than a passing interest in piano music, Brendel's essays are very rewarding. He is, for a start, a good writer. He has a keen appreciation of the virtues of musical anecdote when he wants to make a point. (I never knew, for instance, that only one of Beethoven's piano sonatas was performed publicly in his lifetime.)

Very obviously, he knows what he is writing about. And he opens up lines and modes of appreciation that would have otherwise remained closed. It will probably serve me no practical purpose to learn of the difficulties of travelling with a piano when on tour, but I like learning that a Bösendorfer's lower middle range is very good for playing Schubert, or that because of the peculiar acoustical properties of the Vienna Musikverein, the only time the orchestral musicians can hear each other properly is in performance, ie when the auditorium is full.

These essays, which span five decades, sometimes seem as though they are fighting battles that are long since over. This is because these very essays were instrumental - if you will forgive the term - in bringing about a change of mind. Since 1974, people don't go around knocking Schubert's sonatas because Brendel's essay of that year makes such a good case for them. And, except when he is being technical, he is totally accessible. He wants to communicate. "To sit down and start Haydn's last C major sonata with a tortured look is even worse than to embark on the so-called Moonlight sonata with a cheerful smile." (He's very good on humour in music - his "Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?", his most well-known essay, is of course reproduced here.)

As he said in his appreciation of the pianist Edwin Fischer, with this book you begin to feel as though you are getting to the heart of the music.


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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