Alfred Brendel was born in 1931 in Czechoslovakia. He studied with local teachers and received fourth prize at the Busoni Competition in 1949. At age eighteen he decided to make piano playing his profession. “I decided to see just what could be done with the piano,” he reported, “And it was the right decision.” Following his decision, he tried to work everything out on his own, so it took longer for him to make a career for himself.
Brendel was not a child prodigy. He did not have a teacher after sixteen years old, but attended a few master classes, including that of Edwin Fischer. Stated the pianist, “I had to find out many practical things for myself which made it a slow process, but a process which was thorough and entirely my own.” “In the first place,” he continued, “I learned to look at each masterpiece as an entity in itself. One has to find out why a work is different and unique.”
Since his teens, Brendel has played the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in many of the world’s major capitals, and in 1983 he was the first pianist since Schnabel to play all thirty-two at Carnegie Hall. He is viewed globally as one of the world’s supreme Beethoven players. He has recorded the Sonatas twice, each different in many respects. The early set was light and lyrically graceful. His later recordings are deeper and more cerebral.
“Anyone who has ever tried to live with masterpieces of music for several years and become aware of what they are about, how they are constructed, how themes, motifs hang together in a movement, and how movements hang together in a sonata will discover that a Beethoven sonata is a tremendous intellectual feat and that the intellectuality of the sonata is an integral part of the whole,” wrote Brendel. “The intellectuality is tied to the emotions – an interplay between chaos and order. . . If chaos is life which surrounds us,” he reported, “The work of art is something which puts order against it. So for me a work of art and life itself are opposed; they do not necessarily mirror each other.”
His recordings of Bach display his good sense of line which brings out the clarity and precision of each voice. Interestingly, his style of playing Bach is much different than that of one of his teachers, Edwin Fischer. “I admired Steuermann’s teaching,” reported Brendel. “He made his students learn passages at a fast tempo, but he subdivided the passages into smaller bits. He’d tell the student to go up to a certain place in the music and play in a specific manner. Next he asked the student to play the second bit and connect it with the first, but not in slow motion. This went on until the student had finished the passage.” Brendel added that this system would also be beneficial for memorizing the whole work.
Brendel’s collection is large and filled with performances of Schumann and Brahms. However, his playing was purported to lack fire and poetry. His playing, instead, was cited by critics as bony, cautious and too serious. To help himself along further in his pianism, Brendel listened to performances by Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Kempff. He also listened to recordings of Fischer, Cortot and Schnabel.
The Romantic composer most suited to Brendel was Liszt, a composer he adored and promoted constantly. His technique was not quite large enough to accommodate Liszt. He could play loudly, but he is not a “big” pianist. He attempted to his credit to merge his intellectual and theoretical bent with a more convincing emotionalization of the music. He wrote, “Feeling is the alpha and the omega of the musician, the point where music comes from and the point to which is has to return.” Critics report that this feeling, the swell of human emotional, was not fully realized in his art, that his analytic nature interferes with his desire to simply let the music speak.
“That does not mean that I do not value thinking very highly,” added Brendel. “In fact, I value it much more highly than most people seem to because this is one of the criticisms leveled against musicians and the nature of their music – that they should not be ‘intellectual’ or else the magic of the music is lost.”