Profile: Alfred Brendel

Born in East Germany, Alfred Brendel was a painter and composer before becoming a musician. Largely self-taught, he is acknowledged as one of the world's great pianists, an exponent of the classical tradition. He is also a published poet

Following his performance at the Proms last month, Alfred Brendel was called back on stage five times to take his applause. This is as it should be for one of that handful of great pianists whose every concert holds the anticipation of being something remarkable.

As the normally sober Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians puts it, at his best he is a pianist "capable of winning through to that 'second simplicity' where the listener has the sensation of music not being played, but happening by itself". In addition, although Brendel's biographical and artistic roots are in German-speaking central Europe, he has been a Hampstead resident and fixture on the London music scene for more than 30 years, so it is little surprise that the Albert Hall audience regards him as one of its own.

Beaming his toothy smile out into the arena, Brendel presents the appearance of the absent-minded professor, with his heavy spectacles, fly-away hair and gangly, if now slightly stooped, frame. But seeing him so openly responding to the waves of genuine affection makes it all the more extraordinary that for many years Brendel's relationship with his audience was strained and characterised by a mutual wariness.

He has said this was partly because he was neither an obvious son nor a father figure, and so audiences could not easily mother or hero-worship him. But equally he made little effort to endear himself to them. He acknowledges that "it took a long time for people to get used to how I was playing, perhaps a bit longer than with other pianists". He was identified early as a rare talent, but a reputation as an overly intellectual musician dogged him for many years. One American critic recently claimed that he came away from a Brendel performance "greatly enlightened as to the music's sinews, but unwarmed by its flesh".

However, the pianist Imogen Cooper, who was taught by Brendel, explains that while "he is in a perpetual process of change and quest and is extraordinarily open, he is a musician of very deep feelings. You have to resist labelling him an intellectual. I have seen so many instances of his musical decisions being absolutely informed by his feelings."

Brendel himself has said that "feelings must remain the alpha and the omega of a musician". While it was said of Horowitz that he only had two topics of conversation; the piano and Horowitz, nothing could be more different to Brendel's vast hinterland. He is one of classical music's great researchers, and is a perceptive writer about it, but he also pursues interests in literature, art, architecture and philosophy. But more than this, as his friend the writer Al Alvarez puts it, "despite his classical tastes, Brendel is an anarchic spirit". He collects cartoons by Gary Larsson, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams and has in recent years emerged as a writer of wittily surreal poetry.

The social scientist Professor Richard Sennett is a classically trained musician and has known Brendel for more than 20 years. Sennett complains that the tendency to treat Brendel as "this Germanic totem" doesn't do justice to the playfulness in his playing: "You can hear that in the way he manipulates dots in Beethoven. When Schnabel plays them they are all staccatos. But when Brendel plays them they all have a distinct character. It is a very playful thing."

Brendel's scrupulous attention to the pillars of the classical repertoire, and to Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in particular, has been constant. Over the past half century he has returned repeatedly to this terrain, displaying exemplary freshness as well as mastery. In recent years there have been his complete set of Beethoven concertos with Sir Simon Rattle and his live recording of Schubert sonatas. The Mozart concertos with Sir Charles Mackerras have again earned him a place on the shortlist for the Gramophone magazine record of the year (won this week by Stephen Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra).

Last year, to mark his 70th birthday, a book of conversations between Brendel and Martin Meyer of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung was published in German. Released in English this month, it provides a revealing window on Brendel's life, career and preoccupations.

He was born in 1931 in the Moravian town of Wiesenberg, now in the far east of Germany, the only child of a non-musical family. He has a stock speech to express his surprise at his subsequent career: "I was not a child prodigy or eastern European or Jewish as far as I know. I'm not a good sight reader, I don't have a phenomenal memory and I didn't come from a musical family, an artistic family or an intellectual family. I had loving parents, but I had to find things out for myself."

Although his parents never went to concerts Brendel says they could sing in tune and they noticed that he could as well. But his early musical education was confined to learning some folk songs with his nanny and then playing records for guests when his parents ran a hotel on the Croatian island of Krk.

When Brendel was six the family moved to Zagreb, Croatia's capital, where his father ran a cinema. In 1943, as the war encroached, they moved again to Graz in Austria, where Brendel senior worked in a department store. Alfred witnessed Hitler visiting the town, an event, with hindsight, that can be seen as the genesis of his fundamentally sceptical world-view. "It was my first impression of mass hysteria. I saw the eyes of the believers and it inoculated me against belief of all kinds."

He remembers seeing Jews wearing yellow stars. While some members of his family were Nazis, one aunt was shot as a partisan just before the end of the war. "The war was very dramatic but it could have turned out much worse for us," he says. "My father only had to join the army near the end and he never had to fight." In the last months of the war children, including the 14-year-old Brendel, were trained and sent over the Yugoslav border to dig trenches. "But the train was very slow because of the winter and I got frostbite on my heels and had to go into hospital," he explains. "My mother found out where I was and got me out."

Brendel describes the immediate post-war years, when he was in his mid-teens and was a painter, composer and writer as well as a musician, as his "period of genius". Rudolf Haller, today a professor of philosophy in Graz, met him during this time at an exhibition of Brendel's work. "He gave up painting not long after and today he doesn't much like his pictures," says Haller. "He always knew what he wanted and he did everything in the best way possible to achieve it. He was very strict and serious when he prepared a new piece of music, and even in some of his first concerts you could see this was a genius in some way."

In Zagreb aged six Brendel had begun piano lessons on the basis that it was "the done thing" in a bourgeois family. Lessons continued off and on until he was 16, when his formal tuition ended. He now counts himself lucky "in not being hindered or damaged by teachers". He did later attend masterclasses given by the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer, but mostly he used a tape recorder to hear himself play, attended concerts and listened to recordings.

He cites Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and Alfred Cortot as particular influences - "people I saw in my 20s and whose work I can verify in their recordings" - but says he learned as much from conductors and singers as from pianists. "Singing is, for me, the essence of music. And conductors have taught me about things like orchestral colour, ensemble playing and tempo. I admired Bruno Walter and Klemperer. Furtwängler remains for me the definitive impression of the conductor."

Brendel's first recital, which he calls a "strange and very complicated programme", was given aged 17 in Graz. It was entitled The Fugue in Piano Literature and featured Bach, Brahms and Liszt as well as Brendel' s own compositions. He attracted praise from the local music press although he decided to stop composing soon afterwards. "But I was very glad that I had that experience. I urge every young pianist to take composition lessons and try composition. To learn how a piece hangs together gives you a different perspective."

While Brendel's father - "the optimist of the family" - encouraged him, his mother was unhappy about his career choice. "She wanted me to get a degree and have a secure future and thought there must be something not quite right - until I got my first honorary degree from London university in 1978." He says although his parents were kind to him he felt a necessity to free himself from them. "I could not expect much understanding of what I was doing, or what art or music or literature was about. So that might have been painful for my parents, although in the long run they had their reward in watching my career."

In 1949 he was awarded a prize in the Busoni piano competition in Bolzano, Italy, and the following year he moved to Vienna, a step he saw as the beginning of his musical career. "I was lucky in that, mainly because of my background, I did not expect to be famous the day after tomorrow," he says.

"I found having a talent was a long-range proposition. When I was 20 I wanted to achieve certain things by the time I was 50, not by 25. I was not without ambition, but it was not a burning, self-destructive ambition. I thought about the works to which one should do justice." He heard some musicians in concert, all over 50, which gave him an idea of "what music could be like if things go right. And when I was 50, looking back, I thought I did actually get what I had wanted to get, although there were still things to do, of course."

Post-war Vienna, with its many well-trained musicians, provided rich pickings for record companies, who got them on the cheap. Brendel's recording career started when he was 21 with Prokofiev's 5th piano concerto. Stephen Plaistow contributed the entry on Brendel to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and says that while Brendel is unusual in being largely self-taught, "what he did as a young man was play what he was asked to play. People asked him to do series of programmes or recordings and he often said 'yes'. Some guy running Vox records asked him to do the Beethoven."

"They were a very strange company," says Brendel, "but they did give me the chance to record virtually the whole of Beethoven's piano works. It was a wonderful adventure but I didn't set out to play the definitive Beethoven performance. I just set out to do what I can." He looks back fondly on those times, and says "one was cautiously optimistic, knowing that things could only get better. People helped each other. It was very different then in Vienna but they still tried to listen to music and go to the opera."

In 1960 Brendel married Iris Heymann-Gonzala, an Argentinian who had studied singing in Vienna. They have one daughter, Doris, who is a pop and rock singer, "and she has more gigs than me," laughs Brendel. Although he was still regularly performing and recording, Brendel says that in the early 1960s his career became "slightly stagnant. I didn't get too many important engagements. My record companies were small and there was no promotion at all. But I am grateful that if I am now successful I know it is completely honest, it was not hyped up and the result of huge promotion."

Imogen Cooper, who as a young pianist worked with Brendel in Vienna, says, "We only had a few sessions, but they were very intense and he reduced things to give me enough to work on. He expounded on what he heard and felt and there wasn't much room for any particular development of your personality or worries about a 20-year-old's insecurities. It was for you to work out what you wanted and then to go away and make the best of it."

Brendel says the tide turned quite suddenly. The day after "an unpopular" Beethoven programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, three major record companies called his agent and Brendel became one of the most sought-after artists in the world. He has described it as a kettle at last coming to the boil.

He moved to London in 1971 following the breakdown of his marriage. Iris remained in Vienna where she became a potter, and the marriage was formally dissolved the following year. Brendel married his current wife, Irene Semler, in 1975. She is German but had lived for some years in Britain working for a German television company. They have three children; Katharina is a student, Sophie works for Reuters in New York and Adrian is a cellist. There are plans for father and son to play together over the next few years.

"While I am embarrassed to say this," says Brendel, "I admire him enormously as a musician." Richard Sennett, who has taken cello lessons from Adrian, says Brendel has been very supportive to Adrian. "Usually in musical families there is an intense psychodrama between generations. While music often runs in families, not often does it run so affably."

The arrival of Brendel's second family coincided with increasing professional commitments and travel. He was often an absentee father but says "fortunately my second wife has outstanding motherly talent. So I hope things will continue to go right. But I like my independence very much. I am not a member of a club or of a party or a creed. As a family man I do my best but I do not need to be rooted, just as I have no nationalist feelings of any kind."

Observers say that when Brendel returns to Vienna now it is like a state visit. In 1998 he was made an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, only the third pianist to be so recognised. But his relationship with the city has not always been so harmonious. "I've liked Vienna much better recently," he says. "It is a cosmopolitan city now the border to the east is open, although I never consider going back." He says he is very happy in London but is still mystified why there are not more protests about problems such as the condition of the national health service and transport: "But perhaps one of the reasons I like London is that the English have very little talent for fanaticism."

As Brendel's stature grew so did his clout in choosing programmes and recordings. As a young man he occasionally would agree to play a piece if it allowed him to play at a specific venue or with certain people. "But usually I resisted such things and I have tried to keep to the repertory of what I consider to be great music, music you can spend a life with and return to. Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert have been the main part of my repertory. I did what I could for Haydn and Liszt and I love Schumann. I have also played pieces which would not qualify as great, but they are things that I like."

As far back as 1957, Brendel first recorded the Schoenberg piano concerto and has also championed Busoni. Stephen Plaistow says people sometimes wish he would try more new things or return to some of the pieces he played when he was younger. Richard Sennett notes that "usually at this stage of an artist's life they begin to solidify their interpretations and summarise what they have played in the past. They want to try to make the definitive statement. But he is not doing that. It's still young and fresh and you hear somebody still trying to experiment."

Bernard Haitink, who conducted Brendel in a complete recording of Beethoven's piano concertos in the mid-70s, said last year that "he doesn't take his mastery for granted; he is always searching for something he didn't know before. Each work Beethoven composed for piano has a different style and character, and Brendel has thought about each of them so intensely, so intellectually, so musically, that he comes up with results that are very special. The reason he could record the concertos so often is that he is always able to shed a new light on the music."

Brendel says that "when you listen to my recordings of the Beethoven concertos you will hear a development. That is the justification for re-recording the pieces. It takes a lot of imagination to bring a work alive but it is on the terms of the compositions and not on the terms of showing off. It is not possible without you, but I am responsible to the composer and particularly to the piece." The seriousness with which Brendel takes his responsibilities leaves him scornful of the approach taken by the likes of the late, idiosyncratic Glenn Gould: "His way of treating the music was to me exactly what an interpreter should not do. It tries to be original at the expense of the composer and it contradicts the composer's wishes."

A by-product of Brendel's programme of reappraisal has been his writing on music. He was introduced to Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, by Isaiah Berlin. Silvers says Brendel is "very literary and has a very distinctive way of expressing himself when he talks about music. He has an acute sense of how formal qualities have an expressive effect and he can describe that in a way I find very powerful and interesting."

Silvers has also noticed a progression in Brendel's thought. "You feel he is a man constantly thinking about the subject and in some way seeing new possibilities in, for instance, Mozart. In the new book his views on things he has written about before are now more complicated and, in some way, magnified. It is interesting that he isn't just going with what he earlier formulated."

As well as writing on music, Brendel is a published poet, an art that came to him "completely by surprise" when on a plane to Japan. He says a poem just "emerged" about a pianist growing an extra index finger with which he could point at and "expose an obstinate cougher in the hall" as well as "beckoning to a lady in the third row".

Poet laureate Andrew Motion has a poem about Brendel in his latest collection (Public Property, Faber) and says that "in their black comedy and their surreality his poems very obviously belong in a tradition of middle-European poetry that flowered in the middle of the last century. You can read it alongside Holub, and what he brings to this tradition, and re-kindles, is the whole new subject area of music."

Martin Meyer has published many of Brendel's poems in his newspaper and says, "I think they have an English influence, because normally Germans are not so witty." And while they are generally well received by readers, Meyer says they can prove controversial "when he is a bit heretical about God and metaphysics and so on".

Brendel acknowledges that his literary and intellectual life has ensured he is more than just a musician, but music and the piano remain at the heart of his activities. Although he has been obliged to cut some works from his repertoire following problems with his back and arms some years ago, he still has an extensive performing and recording schedule. Stephen Plaistow explains that Brendel doesn't play the Liszt sonata or the Beethoven Hammerklavier sonata any more: "He said somewhere that his playing would not become a glorification of arthritis. He is unusual in being keen to avoid that, as some pianists seem to go on for ever."

While Brendel would not call himself a teacher, he does work with two of the most talented younger British pianists: Paul Lewis and Till Felner, with Lewis describing their sessions, some of which have lasted up to five hours, as "more musical than specifically pianistic. It is the most amazing thing to see into his way of thinking and his language of music." Brendel explains: "In a piece there are hundreds of possible nuances which are all different. You not only have to store them all, but then you must be able to produce them, and then make the right use of them within your own concept."

As a concert-goer Brendel is often to be found at programmes of contemporary music, and he describes the musicians who play this work as "heroes". His response to the perceived "difficulty" of such music is characteristic: "It has never been a primary consideration to me to see how many people listen to a piece. For me it is a matter of quality, and there are some very popular pieces not of the highest quality and some wonderful pieces that few people listen to."

As ever, what matters is intellectual rigour and emotional authenticity, whether it is in Beethoven or Mozart, in contemporary composers he greatly admires, such as Birtwistle or Adès, in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus or Gary Larsson's The Far Side. Revealingly, in his Who's Who entry, Brendel cites one of his recreations as "kitsch". This is not just a piece of clunking, self-deprecatory affectation from a conspicuous over-achiever. "It seemed like a fundamental subject when I was young," he says. "But nowadays the borders have been so eroded that quite a few people do not know what you are talking about."

What he is talking about is the quest for fundamental honesty that has shaped his life and his art, an ongoing attempt to "distinguish what is genuine and what is not. What artistic quality is, and what aims which claim to be artistic are fake. And what are primary emotions, and what is second-hand or fifth-rate."

Life at a glance

Born: January 5 1931, Wiesenberg, Moravia.
Education: Graz Conservatory.
Married: 1960 Iris Heymann-Gonzala (one daughter, Doris), '72 divorced; '75 married Irene Semler (one son, Adrian, two daughters, Katharina, Sophie).
Some recent recordings: Great Pianists of the 20th Century Vols.12, 13, 14 (6 CDs); Mozart piano concertos with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Beethoven piano concertos with Sir Simon Rattle and the Wiener Philharmoniker; Live in Salzburg: Haydn/Schubert.
Publications: 1976 Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Essays); '90 Music Sounded Out; '98 One Finger Too Many; 2001 Alfred Brendel on Music: collected essays; 2002 The Veil of Order: Alfred Brendel in conversation with Martin Meyer (published by Faber and Faber, price £25)


Nicholas Wroe

The GuardianTramp

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