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Life, Legacy, and Art: A Conversation With Alfred Brendel

Long before he cemented his reputation as one of the great pianists of the 20th century, Alfred Brendel was a young artist—disaffected by the pervasive nationalism of the 1930s and ’40s and all of its depraved manifestations—struggling to find an independent voice through painting, literature, and music. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, Brendel moved between piano teachers in Yugoslavia and Austria as a youth, not giving his first public recital until the age of 17. Since then, his name has become synonymous with the Classical and early-Romantic piano repertoire, championing the works of Beethoven and Mozart, advocating for the sonatas of Schubert and Haydn, and working tirelessly as a proponent of Franz Liszt. On November 19, Brendel will begin a four-day residency at Juilliard in affiliation with Carnegie Hall, highlighted by a public lecture titled “Light and Shade of Interpretation” and a special chamber music presentation on Schubert. In a recent interview conducted via e-mail, piano master’s degree student Benjamin Laude conversed with Brendel on his life, work, and musical philosophy.

Renowned pianist Alfred Brendel will begin a four-day residency at Juilliard on November 19.

(Photo by Courtesy of the Alfred Brendel Archive)

Alfred Brendel

(Photo by Courtesy of the Alfred Brendel Archive)

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Benjamin Laude: The year 1938 saw both the German Anschluss of Austria and the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia, both countries you called home at various points in your childhood. Living in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and Graz, Austria, during World War II, in what ways did your close proximity to some of the most horrifying atrocities of the 20th century affect you personally and artistically, driving you towards a career as a pianist?

Alfred Brendel: I have indeed retained the most vivid recollection of the war, of Nazis and Croatian fascists, of whispered stories about concentration camps, and of Hitler’s crowing voice coming through the loudspeakers. I remember one member of the family being an active Nazi while another one was killed by the Nazis. These formative years have inoculated me against all brands of fanaticism and nationalism. It was only after the end of the war that my artistic sensibilities could fully emerge. 

BL: How did literature, poetry, and painting factor into your formative development, and in what ways did they complement your musical proclivities?

AB: The years following the war opened up an enormous amount of modern art, literature, and music that had been ostracized. It was a wonderful period—people were unselfish and helped each other, a healthy skepticism prevailed, yet one knew that things could only get better. Of all my aesthetic activities, piano playing and writing continued in the long run. But I remained an avid reader, as well as a lover of art and architecture. And my experience as a composer, though modest, helped me to look at pieces from a composer’s point of view. 

BL: What I find remarkable about your biography is that you were largely self-taught. To what degree did your later studies with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann influence your artistry, and how much of your development relied on personal discovery?

AB: My first teacher, a resolute woman in Zagreb, had the idea that the outer fingers should be strengthened. When I later played for another lady in Graz who subsequently became my second teacher, she told me that my mechanism was not relaxed enough. How to loosen up she didn’t say—I had to find out by myself. There were many things I had to find out without getting the information from others. My parents were neither intellectuals nor artistically-minded. In retrospect I am glad about this kind of development. It was gradual, but it was my own.

When I was 16 the nice lady in Graz told me that she had taught me all she knew, and advised me to give a public recital. I did this the following year, and played a bold program consisting only of works including fugues, one of them being a piano sonata of my own with a double fugue. Then I auditioned for the great pianist Edwin Fischer and attended his Lucerne summer classes in ’49 and ’50. These classes set in motion things which still resound in my mind.

Fischer’s sound, wonderful on any dynamic level, his combination of spontaneity and humility, of simplicity and refinement, of passion and introversion were an inheritance which to fully appreciate took many years. His recordings are uneven, but the best of them, particularly of his Bach playing—Fantasia-Prelude in A Minor and the second movement of the F-Minor Concerto—have a visionary quality that has remained revelatory to me.

My access to Edward Steuermann came through his nephew, the conductor Michael Gielen, with whom I had performed the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, a work that I later introduced on three continents. I much admired Steuermann’s natural ease in handling the music of the earlier part of the 20th century.

BL: Was there an event you see as being crucial in catapulting you to an international career?

AB: There was in the late-’70s a particular Beethoven recital in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall that included the Sonata Op. 54 and the “Diabelli” Variations, which had the effect of three big record companies contacting my agent the next morning. Before that I had extensively recorded for smaller labels like Vox, Turnabout, and Vanguard. But now, in spite of all those lower-priced discs on the market, Philips put their trust in me to record a large repertory.

BL: In addition to being a renowned pianist, you are also an avid writer and poet. Do you think there is a common psychological or emotional point of origin from which each of these artistic representations emerges? In other words, how is playing a Beethoven sonata like composing a poem or writing an essay?

AB: A piece of music, an essay, and a poem have in common that they have a beginning and an end—with them, what Anton Chekhov recommended to younger writers of stories wouldn’t work: “Better leave the beginning and ending out.” There is also a thread leading from one to the other. And there are usually one or more motifs, ideas, themes that are being developed. Now comes a basic difference: the sonata I played was Beethoven’s, the poem remained my own. More differences: in playing the older repertory, cantabile is, to me, at the heart of music. My poems do not sing, they speak.

BL: One of your poems begins, “When the Dadaist looked into the mirror / he saw some fetching contradictions / himself and his opposite / tomfoolery and method.” Your poetry is imbued with this sense of the absurd—simultaneously engaged with the world and alienated by it. Do you find an element of the absurd in other facets of your life, and in your professional career as a pianist?

AB: Absurdity is indeed what I find in our world. There seems to be more of it every day. The best way to deal with it is to seek out its comic aspects. In my career, I see more unlikeliness than absurdity. 

BL: Your career has included the recording of three separate Beethoven sonata cycles, but you have also found the time and inspiration to record all of Mozart’s piano concertos. Can you discuss the psychological, physical, and artistic challenges you faced in attempting to communicate a work’s form or capture its character in each of these sets?

AB: In my lecture [at Juilliard] I shall try to outline some basic aspects of performance in the shape of extremes. Here is an example: There are performers who only play what they see on the page, and others who want to surprise the listener with every note—I am neither. It is very important to know and respect what the composer has written down; but it has to be brought to life in the right way, and the markings alone are frequently not sufficient. The wonderful thing about coping with these cycles of masterpieces is that one becomes more keenly aware of the marvelous variety of the works, of the fact that Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself, that each of the 32 sonatas has a clear physiognomy of its own. Similarly, playing the five Beethoven concertos in a row will inspire the player to stress the differences, and sharpen their character. 

One other feature of my outlook is that the piano should not be taken as self-sufficient—it should be transformed and transcended. This seems necessary to me because great piano works have been receptacles of many musical ideas—orchestral, vocal, instrumental in various timbres—and not primarily products tailor-made for a certain vintage of a certain keyboard maker. The greatest piano composers, with the notable exception of Chopin, were all composers of ensemble music, sometimes predominantly so. There are plenty of ideas derived from other musical media latent in the score; the pianist should make them as manifest as possible. The knowledge of the composers’ other instrumental and vocal music will help him or her to discard the apparent limitations of a piano. I feel that I’ve learned more from listening to and working with conductors and singers than from pianists. 

BL: In your 1970 essay “Form and Psychology in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” you famously describe Beethoven as an “architect” and Schubert as a “sleepwalker.” How do these characterizations manifest themselves in your interpretation of a Beethoven sonata as opposed to a Schubert sonata?

AB: They disclose themselves to the pianist who tries to feel and understand what the composer wrote, certainly not by deciding “to be an architect” or “to sleepwalk.” By the way, don’t take these characterizations as absolute and exclusive: Beethoven at times could dream or rave, and Schubert could be the logical master craftsman. Truly great composers defy pigeon-holing.

BL: The title of your lecture, presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with Juilliard, is “Light and Shade of Interpretation.” Can you elaborate a little bit on the general thesis of your lecture, and how students might be able to apply your ideas about performance practice and interpretation when approaching a new work?

AB: My Juilliard lecture deals with certain habits and fixed ideas of performance practice today. After giving an overview over the main traits of performance in general I shall deal with some of the idiosyncrasies of present-day performance in particular. I shall plead for variety—not as a random approach in performance, but as the attempt to do justice to the infinitely different facets of the masterpieces themselves. Instead of applying a few stereotyped formulas to the pieces we should judge every instance on its own, and aim for its special and appropriate solution. Czerny said about Beethoven’s works: Every one of his compositions adheres to a certain basic character up to its smallest detail. I shall try to demonstrate my opinion that the execution of detail is no less important than the grasp of the whole.

BL: Can you talk about your relationship with both Juilliard and Carnegie Hall over the years—what impact do you see these institutions as having on the welfare of classical music and the world of art more specifically? Also, what are your priorities in working with young people as a lecturer and coach, and what do you hope to achieve in your four-day residency in November?

AB: In coaching, apart from what I mentioned before, I try to develop the awareness of character in music, a notion which is the subject of another of my lectures. There is form and structure, and there is character, atmosphere, psychology, “expression.” The belief that the character of a piece results automatically from its structure is erroneous. The psychological understanding of a piece is no less crucial than a sense of form. Both interact, but do not necessarily mirror one another. I also hope to stimulate the awareness of continuity and coherence in structure, character, and rhythm. A performance should not sound like an analysis; it should present a synthesis. The message comes from the piece. It should inform the player, instead of the player telling the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he should have composed. To become familiar with a piece in this way may require patience.

My relation with Carnegie Hall has been warm and cordial over a time span of many years, and included the privilege of my own annual recital series. As for Juilliard, I am aware of its illustrious reputation. I shall be glad to get in touch.

BL: In December 2008, you gave the final public concert of your career in a performance of Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto, K. 271, with the Vienna Philharmonic. Where do you plan to focus your artistic energies now that you no longer must face the rigors of concert stage?

AB: I give lectures supplied with musical examples at festivals and universities. I do readings of my own poetry, alone or with the assistance of musicians—Pierre-Laurent Aimard, or my cellist son, Adrian. I write. I prepare new books for publication. I coach chamber music. I take care of a few select young pianists. I visit museums and exhibitions, and look at architecture. I read, go to the theater, and look at films—preferably older ones. There is so much to do, and such a lot to enjoy. 

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