One of the 20th century's greats, the 85-year-old Austrian pianist makes ears perk up even after the end of his concert career. Now he's being recognized for his lifetime achievement by Germany's ECHO Klassik.
It's been seven years since Alfred Brendel ended his concert career. "Sixty years of playing in public seemed sufficient," he remarked then with a wry touch. Shortly afterward, he suffered an acute hearing loss and has since then only been able to hear distorted tones. He's stopped practicing.
The worst imaginable fate for a musical professional? Brendel, who looks 15 or 20 years younger than he is, doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. "The appearance is deceiving, but it could be worse," he says with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smile. "I get the impression that I could die now - but then, things keep coming up," he added in his 85th birthday portrait on German television broadcaster ZDF.
Interviews with Alfred Brendel have grown rare, but that's not to say he's gone into retreat. In December 2015 he was in Bonn, Germany, for the International Telekom Beethoven Competition to give a lecture titled "A Pianist's A to Z." His observations on the world of music and musicians were glass-clear, fun, broad-based, and filled to the brim with anecdotes and a lifetime of experience. And it was evident: Even with a lectern and not a piano as a prop, Brendel has retained every ounce of his stage presence.
At his farewell performance at Vienna's Musikverein on December 18, 2008
Character actor at the keyboard
The syntax and style in his speech recall the way he played piano during his long career. Critics praised the lightness and aplomb of that style, precise and serious. With minimal body language and a dose of modesty, the "philosopher at the piano" - tall, gaunt and with thick horn-rimmed glasses - placed himself in the service of the composer. Yet, as London's "The Guardian" observed, he was "not a passive recipient of the composer's commands."
"I often feel like a character actor," explained Alfred Brendel in an interview with DW in 2002. "I like - as far as possible - to slip into different roles." Brendel thus executed far more than just a blind trust in the score, once giving a possible explanation for that, too: "The years I spent under Nazi rule made me immune to blind trust."
The notes played by this pianist and preserved on record and CD have left their mark on generations of musicians and music lovers. "Music that is not played, but seems to happen all by itself," are the words Brendel found to describe two musicians he highly revered: his teacher Edwin Fischer and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.
That description might also apply to his own body of work, released on 114 CDs. And Brendel wouldn't be Brendel if he didn't have a wry comment for that as well: "Now I'm curious about whether they're leaving it the way it was."
Alfred Brendel was born on January 5, 1931 in northern Moravia; the city of his birth is in present-day Czech Republic. The boy of German, Austrian, Italian, und Slavic heritage grew up on the Adriatic coast in what is now Croatia. He went to school in Zagreb, studied at the Conservatory in Graz, then moved to Vienna in 1950 and on to London in 1970, where he remains at home. "I'm not somebody who looks for or needs roots," Brendel once said. "I want to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I prefer to be a paying guest. That's a lesson I learned in the war."
Giving his first concert at age 17 and winning the Busoni Competition in Bozen a year later, decades of global concertizing followed - for which Alfred Brendel harvested a number of distinctions: three honorary doctorates (at the universities of London, Oxford and Yale), numerous prizes (including the Ernst von Siemens and the Herbert von Karajan awards) and lifetime achievement recognized at the MIDEM Classical Awards in Cannes, the Edison Awards in Holland - and in October 2016, by Germany's ECHO Klassik.
Along with his astonishing productiveness onstage, Brendel has written numerous poems and essays and published books, including "Music, Sense and Nonsense" in September 2015.
A few choice composers
He was and remains an artist with a wide horizon. Nonetheless, it soon became clear which composers he would devote his greatest attention to. The first pianist to record the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven, he was also described by German music critic Joachim Kaiser as "the Schubert performer since 1950." Haydn, Mozart, Liszt, Busoni, and Brahms also are among his other favorites. In later years, Brendel focused on ever fewer, explaining to DW in 2002, "If you play the right pieces, the ones worth spending a life with, they become sources of strength that always radiate new energy and regenerate the performer's powers."
And Brendel also found, and continues to find, strength and recreation in things that have nothing to do with music. "I've always had a need not only to read but also to write," he says. "In my younger years, I painted for a while. Now I find visual perception increasingly important. I go to museums, exhibitions, to the movies and the theater."
Alfred Brendel gave his final performance in December 2008, having recorded Beethoven's sonatas for cello and piano with his son, cellist Adrian Brendel, shortly before. Since then, he's remained present in the music world as an author and lecturer, finding memorable words even for thoughts about death: "If one had to hear Verdi incessantly in Paradise," Brendel observes, "I'd ask for leave and the occasional visit to Hell."
For the interim, Alfred Brendel remains among us, ever generous with wit and advice. At the piano competition in December 2015 in Bonn, he had a tip for aspiring pianists: "You should take lessons in composition and write music yourselves. That's the only way to understand how a work is conceived from the beginning to the end."