In December 2008, Alfred Brendel played his last public concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. At the age of 78, he had decided he would retire gracefully from the platform in the manner and at the time of his choosing. But there was never doubt that this great pianist would go on writing, talking and thinking about music. Seven years later he has produced a collection of essays and lectures – a distillation of his thinking about music over several decades. Not all performing artists are eloquent about their art. Alfred Brendel most certainly is.
It’s difficult to think of any other living figure who could have produced a book like this. He writes as a pianist, with all the practical and musical insights that come from more than 60 years of playing at the highest level. His prose is in (very elegant) English, yet his life and thinking are rooted in German and Austrian culture. He is scholarly, but with an irrepressible sense of the absurd. His frames of reference include art, literature, politics and film. He studied with Edwin Fischer, who had studied with a pupil of Liszt. There is a sense of the end of a line.
The book is broadly divided into three parts. The first is a collection of essays about the individual composers who were the absorbing preoccupation of Brendel’s playing years – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt (with some additional thoughts on Busoni). Then there are a dozen or more chapters on performance, teachers, pianos and recording. The final section is devoted to conversations he’s had over the years with cultural writers.
Each section may appeal to a different readership. The essays on particular composers and pieces are generally the densest and will only be meaningful to people who know the repertoire well – and, even then, may well need to be read in conjunction with a study score and/or YouTube or Spotify. One day – surely? – someone will invent the ebook format that enables authors to discuss and illustrate music in a frictionless way.
Brendel’s style in talking about the pieces and composers in whose company he’s spent most of his life is aphoristic and unsentimental. Here he is, for instance, on Mozart: “Mozart is made neither of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar. The cute Mozart, the perfumed Mozart, the permanently ecstatic Mozart, the ‘touch-me-not’ Mozart, the sentimentally bloated Mozart must all be avoided.” He is exasperated by people who “stretch out their legs before them and expect from Mozart joy, crispness, grace and satisfaction” – as if this were not the same man who composed the Requiem, or the G minor symphony or chamber works.
We learn much about pianos, ancient and modern. Listening to Beethoven on a present-day piano is, Brendel thinks, like “listening to a sort of transcription”. He is in no doubt that a modern instrument does better justice to the composer than a 19th-century one, adding: “If I had to compare the demands the Érard and the modern Steinway make on the physical power of the player, I would tend to think in terms of those made on a watchmaker and on a removal man!”
At other times he delves into the minutiae of performance and editions – passages that may be invaluable to grade eight students, but less to the general reader. The more Brendel has lived with the great classical and romantic composers, the more he has felt obliged to go back to the original manuscripts, finding even Urtext editions unreliable. Only his most devoted followers will appreciate his apology for his “indefensible” reading of the score of Beethoven’s op 28, second movement, bars 72-73.
But these moments of micro-perception are balanced by flashes of the personal. His reflections on a lifetime of recording are shot through with vivid glimpses of the scale and intensity of the endeavour. Nearly six years to lay down the piano works of Beethoven. Cold winter mornings in dilapidated baroque mansions in Vienna in the 1960s, where the logs in the fireplace cracked so loudly they had to be thrown into the snow before recording could begin.
But a recording is, he emphasises, simply the fixing of a moment, and he laments how the pursuit of the ideal performance has led to a loss of risk-taking. For Brendel, the pianist is “all too easily blamed or, almost worse, praised for interpretations that have lost some of their validity, at least as far as he himself is concerned. People expect an artist to develop, and yet they are only too ready to impale him, like an insect, on one of his renderings. The artist should have the right to identify his work with a certain phase of his development. It is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”
And what of the role of the pianist as interpreter? Again, Brendel looks to autobiography to explain why he doesn’t consider himself to be the passive recipient of the composer’s commands. “I have been made immune to blind faith by the years I spent under the Nazi regime. In the slave mentality of that era, not only words like ‘faith’ and ‘fatherland’, but also the word ‘fidelity’ suffered shameful abuse. Even a fairly harmless word like ‘work’, when used in conjunction with ‘fidelity’, strikes a militant pose; for me, after all these years, the term Werktreue still smacks of credulous, parade-ground solemnity. The Vienna of the postwar years – a further background to my aversion – presented a mixed picture, musically speaking.”
The conversations at the end of the book represent 40 years of thinking and talking about music, with occasional tailpieces containing Brendel’s rear-view mirror of his former views. Though he no longer performs, he is still a formidable intellectual and musical presence.
Since retiring from the concert scene Brendel has cruelly suffered from a hearing disorder which makes it difficult for him to listen to the piano. There is a short, very moving essay penned this year, simply titled “Hearing”, which conjures up the sounds of a life lived at the intersection of European high culture and turmoil.
“Hearing has its own memory. It registers the dog whose sudden barking startled me as a child. The folk songs my nanny used to sing. The dadaism of a cabaret song from Berlin: ‘I tear out one of my eyelashes and stab you dead with it,’ innocently sung by my mother. Hitler conjuring up the Almighty. The crowing voice of little Goebbels. Alarm sirens, the roar of aircraft, the blast of bombs. Ljuba Welitsch being Salome. The sonorities of Edwin Fischer’s piano playing. María Casares as Lady Macbeth in Avignon. Ralph Kirkpatrick’s two Scarlatti recitals. Gré Brouwenstijn as Leonore in Fidelio. The epiphany of Ligeti’s Aventures et Nouvelles Aventures. The magic application of noise in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All sorts of laughter.”
There, in a few sentences, is the soundtrack to an extraordinary life.
• Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible is published by Vintage. To order Music, Sense and Nonsense for £20 (RRP £25) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.