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Piano Portraits

Mozart Piano Sonatas, K. 310, K. 311, and K. 533/494; Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397

Alfred Brendel, pianist
Philips, 289 473 689-2 / $15.99

Alfred Brendel Live in Salzburg

Alfred Brendel, pianist
Philips, 289 470 023-2 / $15.99

Pachmann, the Mythic Pianist: 1907–1927 Recordings

Arbiter 129 / $14.25


Some years ago Alfred Brendel published the essay “Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?” The question was amusing coming from Brendel, whose seriousness has exemplified the loftiest aspirations of classical music performance during the last half-century. Then again, as Brendel has spent his career demonstrating, to play Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert well requires both lofty aspirations and a healthy sense of humor.

After decades on stage, he affects the slightly comic air of a man resigned to a fame he bears with an ironical sigh and a measure of wonderment, a posture reflected in the self-deprecating title of his new book of conversations with the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, Me of All People. “I am not just a skeptic but a pessimist,” Brendel says to Meyer. “I therefore expect things to get worse…. But at the same time I like being a pessimist, because I like to be pleasantly surprised.” Brendel is a charming sort of pessimist; in other words, he is an optimistic one.

No doubt it helped to have a wry sense of the absurd to survive the war years as a teenager in Croatia and then Austria, where Brendel was sent to dig trenches but suffered frostbite en route and was hospitalized (a detail he curiously omits to mention in the book). His admiration for Dadaism goes back to those years. The late art writer David Sylvester, who used to visit galleries with Brendel in London, wondered why a musician of such classical and rigorous style might not prefer Cézanne, “who is at once classical and existential. Maybe Dada is Brendel’s id,” Sylvester speculated to A. Alvarez. Brendel’s answer was that life is chaotic and art gives it order, even if that art is cheerfully disorderly. To be “gracefully anarchic” like the Dadaists, Brendel has said, is his aspiration.

So fond is he of a remark by Novalis that he repeats it three times to Meyer: “Chaos, in a work of art, should shimmer through the veil of order.” The title of the book in its British edition was The Veil of Order. Brendel elaborates:

There is a saying of Schwitters that I remember reading: if I had to choose between sense and nonsense, I personally would prefer nonsense…. Not in piano playing, where one hopes for performances that do not maltreat masterpieces, but elsewhere. Through these various youthful experiences I had already subconsciously realized that the world was absurd. The existentialists, who appeared after the war, only confirmed this, providing me with a name. The idea of the absurd can of course seem utterly depressing, but one can also try to see it as something as comic as can be, and savour the laughable aspects of its incongruity.

I don’t quite believe Brendel when he says, as he repeats to Meyer, that he was content for his career to evolve slowly, even after he signed on to record with Philips in 1969. I suspect that at the time it seemed to him absurd and perhaps depressing, not comic, because he knew he was gifted. “Let me put it like this,” he tells Meyer, “I had an idea that I was talented.” But he benefited from reasonable circumstances in which he was left to mature on his own, outside the international spotlight, performing regularly. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded for SPA and Vox, small American companies making budget albums in Vienna because musicians there were cheap. He made the first complete recording of Beethoven’s piano music and discs of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Liszt, Dvorák, Schubert, and Schoenberg. Now largely disavowed by Brendel, who received small fees and was distressed to discover the poor quality of the pressings, these recordings nonetheless include what are still some of his happiest performances, prized by aficionados: fresh, elegant, and free in a way some critics complained he was not during coming years.

Back then, Brendel listened to himself on tape, and on playback during recording sessions, educating his ear in solitude, and also learning through example, by hearing the pianists he admired most: Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Cortot, and Edwin Fischer, with whom he took several master classes. Virtually on his own musically from the age of sixteen, he developed an independence that others, who reach the concert stage through conservatories and competitions, often do not. Brendel elected to tackle the largest and most challenging works in the classical repertoire, like Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and Diabelli Variations, compositions of both extreme physical and intellectual demands, as opposed to specializing in more ingratiating music. He rejected Chopin and all players (Horowitz was the prime example) whom he judged to be facile or fixated on virtuosity or beauty of sound for its own sake. “Beautiful sound should never be an end in itself,” he tells Meyer. His playing would, as a result, occasionally be accused of sounding percussive, dry, and didactic, as if he forsook tone for transparency and intelligibility. At the same time, he championed composers whom other players didn’t take seriously, above all Liszt, in whose music he recognized an austerity that very few pianists then saw, although Kempff was an exception. Brendel recalls Kempff playing Liszt’s “Legends of St. Francis,” “in such a way that I did not merely hear beautiful and noble piano music, but also had the feeling that something holy was happening which, without being sanctimonious, sprang from a purity of feeling.”

His equally impassioned descriptions of Edwin Fischer’s playing might suffice as an account of his own priorities at the keyboard: “Fischer had a wonderful way of being simple,” Brendel says. He “was one of the very few pianists who sometimes brought out humor and wit in music: there are passages, for example, in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto which I can still recall him playing with a twinkle in his eye.”

His book with Meyer coincides with a fresh group of comic poems and new recordings. At seventy-two, Brendel, who as a teenager considered a career as a painter and also composed and wrote poetry, remains a figure of prodigious and eclectic energies, notwithstanding that hand injuries now circumscribe his repertoire to less physically taxing music. No more Brahms concertos, Liszt sonata, or “Hammerklavier,” although at Carnegie Hall two seasons ago he played both the Diabelli Variations and Mozart’s large Sonata in A Minor, K. 310: an austere and nuanced performance of trancelike absorption and grandeur.

He has likened the middle movement of the sonata to “a proud woman standing there, saying: even if you tear me apart, I love you and shall remain true, and would rather die than deny you.” Magisterial, heart-rending music, delicately colored, it sounded inspired.

Brendel’s palette seems to have warmed and his emotions become more explicit in recent years. I recall sitting as a teenager in the top tier at Carnegie Hall, scores in lap, for his cycles of Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach, and of Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven, leaving edified and slightly intimidated. Brendel seemed to elevate music to an icy peak of insight and instruction where the air was pure and thin. Now one departs a Brendel recital deeply moved as well as enlightened. Philips has lately released live recordings that he made in Salzburg during the early 1980s, including Haydn’s F Minor Variations, Hob. XVII:6, and late Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50. The playing is intelligent, as you would expect, but hard-edged. However, another recent Philips recording, this one with new versions of Mozart sonatas, including the A Minor, sounds different: lean, propulsive but moderately paced, lyrical in an understated way (sentimentality being the definition of kitsch, Brendel’s true enemy). There’s exuberance: listen to the first movement of the Sonata in D Major, K. 311, funny and joyful. Brendel exudes a kind of devilish dignity.

Brendel,” says Brendel, was a name for the devil during the Middle Ages and in witchcraft literature of the sixteenth century. He pays Mozart an obviously high compliment by saying “his range is from the most comic and absurd to the demonic.” Two years ago Brendel published ten poems about devils to accompany etchings by an American printmaker and sculptor, George Nama. The poems were urbane, anarchic, skillfully turned, and light, in the wry, slightly offhand spirit of One Finger Too Many, a book of satirical blank verse in which he imagines Christo wrapping the Three Tenors on the balcony of the Cologne cathedral.

For the devil poems, humans turn into pretzels. The devil decrees his own nonexistence and people must advertise their own hell. The tone is flip:

When devils feel bored
they play at being good
With pious faces
hands neatly folded
they sit round the boardroom table
and forgive each other anything they ever did
or might be itching to do
The first to dissolve in tears

Brendel tells Meyer that his literary sources include Edward Gorey, Gary Larson, the German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the poets Christian Morgenstern and Daniil Charms, who died in the Leningrad siege, Beckett, Calvino, early Ionesco, and Woody Allen. It’s an especially perverse list because he omits Gogol and Capek, who seem obvious models. He adds:

As a performer I create order, through which chaos sometimes shimmers. In my poems I query order in as orderly a way as possible…. My poems complement, as it were, my musical repertoire. They are characterized by the free rhythms and tempo changes typical of the twentieth century, with no predictable paragraphs or functional harmony as a structural principle. My poems do not follow set forms. But everything they express—in images, thoughts, scenes and words—should be of the utmost clarity, transparently nonsensical, graphically absurd.

Now Brendel has written a portfo-lio of thirteen poems, about angels, in conjunction with Nama etchings, which were presented in a pleasing show at Shepherd & Derom Galleries in New York in April. “Angels always conjured up something beautiful for me,” Brendel tells Meyer, “partly because I take them to be fundamentally female. And angels, without devils, cannot be made out so well.” The angel poems explore a new level of literary complexity and nuance. Like Brendel’s latest playing, they seem somewhat apart from what came before and informed by a spirit—reflective, mischievous, by turns buoyant and melancholic, sometimes a little sexual—that might be called freshly romantic.

Brendel, who loves paradox, regards angels as devils, inseparable, like sense and nonsense, chaos and order, tragedy and comedy. This, says Yves Bonnefoy in a preface to the poems, is precisely the attitude of great music like Così fan tutte. Brendel writes about an angel, who perhaps could be a concert pianist:

an accomplished stunt flier
watched by us
down here
with awe
before it alights next to us
acknowledges the applause
with a grimace
slips back inside.

The last poem is more ethereal and nostalgic:

On an island
remote from all geography
between unicorns and basiliscs
the last angels dwell
higher beings
who had failed to notice
that the spirit no longer blew
they admonish grieve play music
beckoning us to follow their trail
grow seraphic
climb rungless ladders
to reach a deserted heaven
a theatre abandoned by its stage-hands
a rigging-loft

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