Imogen Cooper salutes pianist Alfred Brendel

The great pianist Alfred Brendel performs his last concert this week. His former pupil Imogen Cooper salutes a musical colossus

I first heard Alfred Brendel perform in the late 1960s, in a tiny room in the Austrian Institute in London. I was 19. He played Schubert and Chopin, and was sensational. I marched up to him afterwards and said: "I must work with you or I'll die." He invited me to Vienna the following spring. So off I went, for six weeks.

He was a wonderful teacher. He is extremely articulate and very demanding. He made no concessions to my age. In my first lesson, I was playing a Schubert piano sonata, and the first chord took 20 minutes. I played it again and again, and Brendel wandered around the room saying: "No, balance of sound wrong ... Too much bass ... Not quite the right colour." I started hearing from inside his head. Eventually, I played the chord and he turned around and said, "Thank you," and I knew it was right. But then, so help me God, I had to play the next chord.

On the platform, Brendel can come across as an austere figure. He is somebody for whom playing the piano hasn't come as easily as it has for other great names. He has to practise a lot - at least, he believes he has to practise a lot. He would be the first to say that he doesn't have a phenomenal memory, so when he walks on to the platform it is probably as much of a challenge for him as it is for the rest of us. He has always had a tremendous sense of vocation, a mission to transmit what he knows and what he feels.

To call Brendel cerebral would imply too much coldness. He has always been very thoughtful: he is a fully rounded musician, not just a pianist. Listening to him play Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, you have a sense of his deep understanding of the idiom of these composers. He is aware of every marking, and understands what that marking means - what Schubert marks as a dot and what Mozart marks as a dot isn't always the same thing.

Brendel's programmes are very organic. For him, it's a question of making connections: he is a brilliant programmer. I remember, in November 1973, a concert at the Royal Festival Hall where he played Haydn sonatas interspersed with Bartók's first concerto and Schoenberg's piano concerto, which he played an important role in bringing to the mainstream repertoire. To hear him play Haydn is to hear him at his most cheeky. Quite often, when he finishes a piece, he turns to the audience with a wicked grin on his face and they erupt into laughter - as they should.

When he is stressed and tense, Brendel can be closed and caught up in his own world, but when he is relaxed and happy, his humour is very much to the fore. He enjoys opening up to whatever is around him. We were in Minneapolis together earlier this year, and we went to the Institute of Arts. I couldn't keep up with him. He was running from room to room, telling me about every painting, what it reminded him of, what school it came from, what painting it was paired with. He was just throwing out this information, and there was this tremendous energy and lightness.

We've only once performed a duet together in public. It was several years ago, in Paris - the Schubert F minor Fantasy. Playing four hands can present an actual physical problem: we're both very tall and generally one partner gets massacred by the other. No prizes for guessing who that was.

Imogen Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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