About Alfred Brendel

Growing up in Vienna, it was always clear to me that Alfred Brendel was one of the greatest musicians. He played there frequently – and of course there were his recordings. But our first meeting came about in 1990, when I was invited to play for Mr. Brendel in Grafenegg where he had a concert. Unexpectedly, this became my first lesson. I played Beethoven’s „Appassionata“ Sonata and Schumann’s „Kreisleriana“ and he immediately started to correct and advise me.

Even in that first meeting he imparted some great truths. He told me, for instance, that the beginning of the Beethoven must be very clear, so clear that a musical person could write it down just through listening to my playing. Everything, he said, is there – the motivic material, the character of the piece. He compared it to a great movie where missing the first minute would cause you to not properly understand the film. Those beginnings are crucially important to him – he showed me how everything grows from there.

Each movement is for him a phenomenon in itself. He has always said to me that there are no rules that slavishly apply to every work – instead, you have to look carefully at every bar and then you have to try to find the solutions.

Some musicians are so concerned with detail that they can sound pedantic and lose the sense of line; others play with a lot of passion but miss some of the refinement. The combination of these concerns is what makes his playing so great and he looks for this in his pupils when teaching. When I play a whole movement through for him he will first comment in a general sense and then go into the details.

I feel privileged to have learnt from him – the most important thing to have happened to me in my musical life. As his pupil you feel part of a tradition emanating all the way from his own teacher, Edwin Fischer, in which the composer, rather than the interpreter, comes first.

As a pianist, as a lecturer and as an essayist (in fact, he has given us some of the best writing on music there has ever been), his is a very important career. He was one of the first pianists who really took Schubert seriously, without any sense of kitsch, and showed what a great composer for piano he was. He was similarly important in rediscovering Liszt’s and Haydn’s piano works. It is these great composers, plus the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, to whom he has dedicated most of his time.

Rather like a highly skilled actor, he is extremely versatile and is able to convey a wide range of character, carefully chosen to suit the music he is playing. It is far more important to him to be absorbed into the music than to let his own personality dominate, yet one can always recognise his playing. His sound is very balanced and colourful and he can evoke the sound of a whole orchestra. There is this sense of declamation in his playing, a combination of singing and speaking.

And in Haydn, in Beethoven, he has shown how some of these pieces make no sense unless you get the humour of the music. He has lectured and written on this also. It is an important element to him and so actually I wasn’t surprised when a couple of years ago Mr. Brendel came up with his own comic poems. It seemed a natural step to take for an always insightful, multifaceted artist.

Gramophone Awards 2010, Special Issue