Alfred Brendel’s parents were not musical and he was not a child prodigy. Due to his father’s work, Brendel and his family moved around Yugoslavia and Austria, and whilst in Zagreb young Alfred began piano lessons with Sofia Dezelic. When the family then moved to Graz, Brendel enrolled at the Graz Conservatory and made his début in the city at the age of seventeen. He never studied with a famous teacher, and from the time he left the Graz Conservatory his only influence was the pianist Edwin Fischer.
His formative years were spent studying the lives of the great composers and listening to recordings, particularly those of Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel. In 1949 he attended a master-class by Edwin Fischer in Lucerne and has always credited Fischer as the most important pianistic influence in his life. In the same year, he entered the Busoni Competition in Bolzano and was awarded third prize. During the 1950s Brendel had some success as a touring pianist in Europe but did not make his London début until 1958. However, during the 1950s he was working very hard at building repertoire, and by the early 1960s he was playing all the Beethoven piano sonatas in public. By playing the complete set across eight concerts in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1962, Brendel carved himself a niche; and his recordings for Vox made between 1958 and 1964, of all of Beethoven’s solo piano works, raised his profile immeasurably on the international scene. From then until the present day Brendel has been in demand throughout the world as a soloist, often performing the complete sonatas and concertos of Beethoven. He has lived in London since he moved there in 1972. In the early 1980s Brendel played the complete Beethoven sonatas in ten major European cities, and he has also given series of recitals devoted exclusively to Schubert throughout Europe, Japan, America and Canada. The centenary of Liszt’s death saw Brendel giving many recitals devoted to the music of this composer. He has received honorary degrees from the universities of Sussex, London and Oxford.
Although largely based around Beethoven and Schubert, Brendel’s repertoire also includes Bach, Liszt and Busoni. In fact, after Beethoven and Schubert, Liszt is the composer most associated with Brendel. Only early in his career did he play Chopin and virtuoso Russian works, such as Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Balakirev’s Islamey; and today he rarely performs French music and only a few contemporary works by Schoenberg and Berg. He knows what he does best and what his audiences want to hear from him, and in Beethoven and Schubert particularly Brendel is able to realise his belief that the music and message of the composer are the most important things: not the piano or the performer.
Brendel follows in the line of Schnabel and Fischer as a cerebral pianist rather than one whose playing is based solely on his emotions; but he takes this idea further, causing some critics to complain of a lack of tone, colour and emotional depth. He is, without doubt, an intelligent musician whose wit and humour is apparent in his writings Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (1976) and Music Sounded Out (1990).
Brendel’s discography is huge. His first series of recordings was made for the American company Vox and recorded in Vienna. In the late 1950s he recorded both concertos by Liszt as well as his Totentanz, Malédiction and arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, all for piano and orchestra. In addition to Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and operatic paraphrases and transcriptions, Brendel recorded some of the late piano pieces, which were even more rarely heard then than they are now.
Brendel excels in the larger works of Beethoven, such as the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106 and ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120.
Having recorded for Philips for more than thirty years, his catalogue with that company is large, and the recording of The Art of Alfred Brendel on twenty-five compact discs gives an excellent overview of his work. Included in the survey are five sets of works by Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. The final set of five discs contains music by Brahms (both piano concertos) and Schumann (the Piano Concerto Op. 54 and many of the major works, including the Fantasie in C major Op. 17). Sometimes Brendel does not seem to reveal the conflicts and inner struggles inherent in Schumann’s music, where an academic approach can override the fantastical elements, but one is always aware that Brendel’s combination of intelligence and humour underlines everything he plays.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).