Alfred Brendel: A Pianist 'Thinker'

Performance Today's Fred Child sat down in May of 2004 with Alfred Brendel on the eve of the pianist's U.S. tour to discuss composers, techniques and performing.

Brendel

Alfred Brendel, from his 2005 CD Mozart: Piano Sonatas hide caption

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Fred Child: Among the most recognized icons in visual art is The Thinker, the sculpture from the 1880s by Auguste Rodin. One of the most recognized profiles in musical art belongs to a man who's been called 'The Thinker' at the piano, "The man who does not let reason capitulate before the sheets of music." That would be Alfred Brendel, he of the hunched back over the keyboard with his big black glasses and that puckish smile that often appears. Fresh from his European tour, from his flat in London, Alfred Brendel joins me. Hello, Mr. Brendel, I'm curious, what have you been practicing today?

Alfred Brendel: Actually Schubert's posthumous pieces that I am playing in my program in the United States.

F.C.: How much time do you spend at the piano on a day when you're at home in London?

A.B.: That depends on what else I have to do. I just came back from a tour and there is a lot of mail to which I have to reply, and I have some literary projects I am finishing. But I try to do about four hours.

F.C.: You mention that you're just back from a tour of Europe and you'll be coming to America shortly —

A.B.: Well, the European tour continues next Monday and then I shall be back, and then I go to America.

F.C.: It sounds like you're very busy. I know that when you're not playing, some of what you do is write. Your essays on music cover every conceivable topic of piano and piano literature, but you invariably call those essays "works in progress" — therefore subject to revision. Creative artists are always refining ideas. Have your own revisions to your writing ever made you tempted to consider revising a score by, say Beethoven or Mozart?

A.B.: I am not a governess who treats the composer like a child and tells him what he should compose. I try to understand what he has written down. I look at the composer like a father, and I look at his music with loving but critical eyes. There may be a sort of blind passage where there are not enough marking, but I am not a computer who just plays what it sees on the page, but I try to understand the signs and go on from there.

F.C.: You say you are not a governess of the music, but you don't exactly treat the music like a governess either. You say the music tells you what to do, but it tells you something. It may tell someone else something different. What is that balance between the active and the passive as an interpretive artist?

A.B.: Well, first of all, if a piece tells me what to do I am very lucky, then I am just striving to go where the piece tell me to go. Those are moments of bliss. But I am not telling the piece where it should be like. I try to understand what it is on its own terms. Each piece has its own structure and its own character, if it's a masterpiece. It's wonderful to occupy one's time finding out what the different structures and characters are.

F.C.: You talk about not just the character, but the structure of a piece. That's something you've written about a fair amount. You talk about Beethoven and Mozart as being very concerned with structure — you talk about them as architects, although very different kinds of architects.

A.B.: In fact I have written much more about the psychology and character of pieces than about structure. Of course structure is there, but the structure of a piece is relatively easy to spot if you are a professional. The character is not so easy to get. Finding the character requires a certain talent, it is often not dictated by the structure automatically. There are sometimes the two processes that go on: one from the structural side and one from the character side, and if you are very lucky they meet in the middle.

F.C.: You say that structure is very easy to discern if music is an important part of your life, but if someone is coming to a Beethoven piano sonata, for example, for the first time, is it important to be aware of the structure of the piece?

A.B.: No, it is not. I am talking about professionals, about colleagues of mine, about composers. If you really want to find out about structure, and how structures differ from one another, than you will have the necessary training. For a first-time listener, the structure is not important.

F.C.: Well the psychology of a piece certainly would come across, and as you said, that's something you've written about quite a bit, and maybe we can talk more specifically. What about Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 109? How would you describe the psychology of that piece?

A.B.: Well there are three very different movements. In the first one the music is floating, and you can even see it structurally. The basses are usually suspended and they do not hold the piece down to earth. In contrast the second movement really is a very earthy piece. The bass line is extremely important. In the third movement there is a communion of both.

F.C.: In your own writing about this piece you quote Beethoven talking about being sick, then getting better, and then thanking God that he's feeling better. Did that personal experience have a direct impact on what you hear in this piece?

A.B.: I would say that it had an impact on the Op. 110 sonata, but not on this one.

F.C.:Let's talk about the psychology of Mozart for a bit. You say that when Mozart writes in a minor key it has a profound impact on what he does, more so than other composers. What is it about Mozart and minor keys?

A.B.: He almost seems to be a different personality when he writes in minor than when he writes in major. There are relatively few pieces in minor keys, but in their weight they almost balance out the pieces in major keys.

F.C.: How would you describe that different personality? Who did Mozart become when he wrote, for example, the Fantasia in C minor, K. 396?

A.B.: Mozart wrote the Fantasia in his life when he was dealing with Bach and Handel. He was occupied with Baroque traits. The interesting thing about the Fantasia is that it seemed to be a fragment that his pupil (Anton?) Franz Stadler had finished. I am not sure that this is so, because the way that it is finished is masterly, and I would suspect that there were some other sketches for the middle section that Stadler used which have not been preserved.

F.C.:In some of your writing about Mozart you quote Arthur Schnabel, who said, "Mozart is too easy for children, but too difficult for professionals." What did he mean when he said that about Mozart?

A.B.: In Mozart's keyboard works everything is exposed. There are relatively few notes and each of them counts. Not only that you find the right key, but that you give each key the right nuance, the right inflection. If you are not careful you fall into a trap. This is also why these pieces are relatively rarely performed. I think that most players shy away from them. They either don't see the complications and think the pieces are too easy, or they do see the complications and find them too difficult. I decided that I should tackle these sonatas because it will be too late if I don't do it soon.

F.C.: You are playing these sonatas, that Mozart wrote as a very young man, in your later years. We hear about the young Mozart being so full of energy. He almost couldn't sit still. When you play, for example, the middle adagio movements, they seem almost out of character for this frenetic young man.

A.B.: Well I don't see him as a frenetic young man in his music necessarily. Of course there are lots of frenetic pieces, but what makes him a great composer, at least from his twenty-first year on, is that he could express nearly everything. If you want to have a definition of great composer, there it is. The ability to do so is mysterious because is you look at the personality of a composer it's usually not far off from those of other people with certain characteristics, qualities, frailties: It is limited. But what he can do musically is almost unlimited. I'm not given easily to mystery, but there is one. Sometimes very young composers can express things that seem to be very much beyond their age. And all composers can stay young if necessary and do some childish things.

F.C.: A little bit earlier you were talking about treating the composer as a father almost, and the performer as the child. This metaphor becomes a reality on your tour: American audiences are going to be hearing another Brendel for the first time: Adrian Brendel, a cellist, and your son. How do you find playing with your son as a partner?

A.B.: Well to go back to the metaphor, the child has to be a grown-up child. It's not a good thing if you are in an infantile stage, you won't be able to help your father. My son is in a grown-up stage, and it's wonderful to play with him because he is so exceptionally gifted as a musician. I thought I should give him the chance to show that he can cope with me and hold his own.

F.C.: Have the two of you always played together at home or is this something new?

A.B.: No, we have not played much of the duet repertory. I have sometimes coached him and his young friends and we have played some Mozart quartets. But to play the whole Mozart repertory is something that we started at the beginning of last year and we will end at the end of this year.

F.C.: Now you mentioned that you wanted to play with him to show that he could cope with you. You must recognize the kind of pressure he might be feeling to be playing with you.

A.B.: Yes, but fortunately we get along extremely well, and I don't think the pressure is as big as it would be if he was not my son. So I'm very lucky.

F.C.: Is that something the two of you can talk about? Can he say, "You know Dad, it's tough playing with Alfred Brendel..."

A.B.: Fortunately there is very little we disagree on musically. I have great admiration for the things that he brings along and how much he can express.

F.C.:I want to ask you about something that is a little bit different. NPR's Performance Today, the program that I work for, is all about live recordings, and you've written quite a bit about live recordings, calling them the step-child of concerts and studio recordings. Do you play differently knowing there is a microphone there and the concert is being recorded to be hear later?

A.B.: I'm afraid I do, yes. In the past quite a few of my concerts were recorded for radio and I didn't pay much attention, but if there is a recording set up by a company, I would be quite nervous. There was one exception, when I recorded Beethoven sonatas in Chicago with James Levine where he had two complete recordings and could then decide which to use.

F.C.:You said you'd be nervous about it. Is that because as listeners we've come to expect such note perfection from studio recordings?

A.B.: I suppose yes, people expect that, but I have always tried in my studio recordings to do what I do in my concerts, only for an imaginary public. The chance to go on for there, to listen to play-back, to repeat things of course is very welcome — you don't have that in a concert hall. It's a little bit more rewarding when you find a recording and think, "This is particularly lively, it sounds well enough, we shall put them on the hold for later day." In fact, I have a collection of my own performances for that purpose.

F.C.:Do you go back and listen to CDs? Do you hear a difference between what you do in the studio and what you do in the concert hall?

A.B.: Not that much. Also, as far as my studio recordings are concerned, I don't think a listener would know which takes are edited and which are not.

F.C.: Does that matter? Does it matter that in the editing room you might create a phrase that never existed?

A.B.: Well it matters to some fanatics who think that if you don't play through the whole movement cheating. They should go to the concert hall.

F.C.: I just have more question for you, Mr. Brendel, about yourself as a child. Your own biography states rather succinctly, "He was not a child prodigy, his parents were not musicians, there was no music in the house. He himself admits he is neither a good sight reader nor is he blessed with a phenomenal memory." That sounds like not a particularly winning combination for a young artist today. Given your own career background, what advice would you give to young up-and-coming pianists?

A.B.: Well as for myself, I have often been asked, "How did I make it at all?" I do not quite understand and cannot explain it. On the other hand, in hindsight I am very happy that by this constellation I had to find out things for myself, to start my own chain of experiences. And maybe, for that matter, my development has been a long one, and perhaps is still going on.

F.C.: One of your biographers suggests that you came very close to doing something other than playing piano when you were young, before you placed well in the Busoni Competition.

A.B.: Well I was painting and drawing and of course I did a bit of writing then like nearly every teenager. The writing has stayed with me and become my second career. It's really flourishing more and more. I have written a number of essays on music, but in the last 10 years I have also written poetry, which has been collected in German in four volumes, and some of it has been translated.

F.C.: And in fact some of your poetry has been set to music, I believe, as well.

A.B.: Yes, that's right. Luciano Berio, Thomas Ades and Harrison Birtwistle, who will add two more of the poems to the one he has already done and these will be performed at his seventieth birthday concert this summer at the BBC Proms in London.

F.C.:Have you ever set any of your own poems to music?

A.B.: Certainly not. I composed in my young years, but I have stopped apart from the occasional Mozart cadenzas.

F.C.: You never get the urge to sit down and compose?

A.B.: I am content in looking at the compositions of others from the composer's point of few to see how they are put together, why they work well, why they lead from the first note to the last note, what is their quality? These are questions that performer usually does not ask.

F.C.:Alfred Brendel, thank you very much for speaking with me.

A.B.: My pleasure.

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