Well-known and highly regarded throughout the classical music world, Alfred Brendel is one of the most accomplished pianists alive today. He has been stunning audiences with his interpretations of classical and romantic period music for fifty years, and still finds time to dabble in writing, poetry, painting and composition.
Brendel was born in Wiesenberg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), on 5 January 1931. Much has been made of his atypical beginnings: his family was not musical, he was not a child prodigy, and he had very little tutoring. His father had various jobs, once working as a hotel manager on the Adriatic Island of Krk. It was there, manning the record player for his father’s guests, that Brendel had his first experience of music.
The family moved around a lot during Brendel’s childhood. In 1937 his father took the family to Zagreb
, where he became the director of a cinema and his enthusiastic six year old son received his first piano lessons. The young scholar moved through a succession of teachers before the family settled in Graz
sometime after the war
. Brendel studied at the Graz Conservatory with a colleague of one of Liszt
’s pupils and took composition lessons from a local organist. At the age of 16, he put an end to his musical training and ventured down the path of self-tuition. He would record himself playing, listen carefully, and make improvements. He believes strongly in his methods, saying teachers “can be too influential”. This self-taught
approach fits in well with his unorthodox rise to fame, and is still a source of pride for Brendel today.
At the age of 17, Alfred Brendel gave his first recital in Graz, titled “The Fugue in Piano Literature”
. It featured works by Bach
and Liszt, but also a sonata of his own composition. For the time being Brendel continued to pursue his interests in composition, literature and painting, at one point holding an exhibition of his watercolours in a local gallery. However, in 1949 he won fourth prize in the esteemed Busoni
Competition and his career as a performing pianist was decisively launched.
He toured Europe
, meeting various pianists and composers who influenced him and his playing. He gradually built up a respectable reputation but didn’t gain any extraordinary attention until one performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London
. He was playing a programme of Beethoven
that he says was quite unpopular – “I didn’t even like it much myself”. The next day he got three offers for a record deal. Baffled at such a sudden advancement, Brendel nevertheless began recording in the 1950s
Brendel became known for his playing of Mozart
and Liszt, and developed a link with Arnold Schoenberg
’s piano concerto
which he frequently presented in recitals. However, again and again it is the music of Ludwig van Beethoven that he comes back to. During the 1960s
, he became the first ever pianist to record all the works of Beethoven. Brendel followed in Artur Schnabel
’s footsteps and recorded all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas on three separate occasions. He played them on sell-out tours in the 1982-83 season and again in the 1990s
. He built up an extremely prolific discography of over 60 records, and a wide-ranging repertoire to match.
After his near-nomadic childhood Brendel finally settled with his wife Irene in London, in 1971. He resurrected his interests in art, painting and literature, and began writing seriously. He has published two collections of essays, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts
(1976) and Music Sounded Out
(1990), which present his thoughts on the composers he appreciates the most as well as analyses of their music. More recently, Brendel has delved into poetry. He wrote a collection of absurdist free verse
in 1998 called One Finger Too Many
. Although Dada
ism, acting, beards and old ladies
all make an appearance, it is music that pervades the text; his subjects include levitating performers, Brahms’s ghost and the “murder” of Mozart. Sometimes funny, sometimes wise and always eccentric, the poems do well to demonstrate Brendel’s ceaseless devotion to music. Another collection, Cursing Bagels
, was published in 2004.
Brendel has had an extremely accomplished performing life, and is remarkably active for a man in his seventies. In recent years, though, he has had to make some age-dependent adjustments. He has chosen to reduce his repertoire somewhat to allow for his slight arthritis, and sticks plasters to the ends of his fingers to stop the nails breaking. More significantly, at the 2004 Proms, Brendel gave his last live broadcast. It was Beethoven, of course, the Emperor Concerto being a perfect choice for a triumphant farewell to one aspect of his performing.
Brendel has been showered with awards from every quarter. On top of many prestigious music prizes, he has accepted honorary degrees from Oxford, Exeter and Yale universities. He was awarded an honorary KBE in 1989 for his “outstanding services to music in Britain”.
An extensive list of recordings made by Brendel after 1980
Alfred Brendel On Music: Collected Essays
Robson Books, 2001
Contains all the essays from the two books below, plus some new material
Music Sounded Out
Noonday Pr, 1992
Originally published 1990
Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts
Noonday Pr, 1991
Originally published by Robson Books, 1976
Translated by Alfred Brendel and Richard Stokes
Faber and Faber Ltd, 2004
One Finger Too Many
Translated by Alfred Brendel and Richard Stokes
Faber and Faber Ltd, 1998