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A Pianist’s A–V

Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano, 1899; destroyed by fire in May 1945

Art and Artists

There are those who believe that delving into the biography of artists ensures a deeper perception of their art. I am not one of them. The notion that a work of art has to mirror the person of the artist, that man and work are an equation, that the integrity of the person warrants the integrity of his production—such belief seems to me to belong, particularly in the area of music, to the realm of wishful thinking. (The poet Christian Morgenstern has his hero Palmström assert that “there cannot be what must not be.”)

Beethoven’s frequently chaotic handwriting in his letters and musical autographs reminds us of his domestic disarray as we know it from pictures and descriptions. In complete contrast, there is the enduring order of his compositions.

The person of a great composer and his work remain to me incommensurable: a human being with its limitations facing a well-nigh limitless musical universe.

There are exceptional cases where events from the composer’s life can be traced in the music. Beethoven, in his Sonata op. 110, composed the experience of returning to life after a severe case of jaundice. Similarly, Schoenberg in his String Trio turned a major health crisis into sound. And Brahms conceived his D-Minor Piano Concerto under the impact of Schumann’s plunge into the Rhine.

Generally, however, the desire to link tendencies and incidents in an artist’s life to his compositions will lead us astray. The notion that a griever longs to compose his grief, a dying musician the experience of dying, or a person overwhelmed with joy his gaiety belongs in the realm of fairy tales. Music is full of counterexamples. Works of happiness, joyfulness, serenity, and even lightness have emerged in times of greatest personal distress. Let us rejoice.


When Beethoven, talking about Bach, exclaimed that to do him justice, the master’s name should not have been Bach (brook) but Meer (the sea), his remark was relevant not only to the surpassing abundance and diversity of more than a thousand compositions but also to the creative power that had come together in this supreme exponent of the most widely extended family of professional musicians ever. I see Johann Sebastian Bach as the grand master of music for all keyboard instruments: the initiator of the piano concerto, the creator of the “Goldberg” Variations, the master of the solo suite and partita, of choral preludes, fugues, and cantatas.

When, in the postwar years, Bach’s piano works were assigned exclusively to the harpsichord or clavichord, young pianists were deprived of the main source of polyphonic playing. To most of us, the assumption that Bach doesn’t fit with the modern piano is an outmoded viewpoint. On present-day instruments one can individualize each voice and give plasticity to the contrapuntal progress of a fugue. The playing can be orchestral, atmospheric, and colorful, and the piano can sing. To curtail in such a way a composer who himself had been one of the most resolute transcribers of works by himself and others might seem misguided even to practitioners of “historical performance.”

Alongside the boundless wealth of Bachian counterpoint the free-roaming creator of fantasies and toccatas must not be forgotten. In the spectacular A-Minor Fantasy (“Prelude”) BWV 922, to give just one example, no bar reveals where the next one will go.

Since the second half of the twentieth century something miraculous has happened: the complementary figure of George Frederic Handel has reemerged. The opportunity to familiarize myself with a multitude of Handel’s works has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts. The drama of his operas and oratorios, his vocal invention (by no means inferior to Mozart’s or Schubert’s), the fire of his coloratura, and his characteristic clarity and generosity now make him stand beside the figure of Bach as comparable in stature.


A crucial element of sound. No matter how relaxed and physically natural the performer’s approach may be, the result will be found wanting if chords and vertical sound combinations remain undifferentiated or when the balancing is left to the instrument. Common defects include: the concept of equally loud playing from both hands; a lack of attention to part-writing; and the permanent stressing of upper voice and bass. The fifth finger of the left hand can sound as if made of steel, and octaves in the bass register are allowed to drown out the rest. Of course there are pianos whose bass is overly loud; some time ago this used to be standard practice in America. Even more frequent is the dominance of the lower middle range, particularly when the soft pedal is applied. But the player should not accept the shortcomings of an inadequately voiced instrument as God-given. The bass should, in my opinion, only be highlighted when it has something special to say. The upper half of the piano should sing and be luminous, while the lower should dominate only in exceptional cases. The player’s arms ought, where necessary, to be as independent of one another as if they belonged to different beings.

Balancing suggests terraces and distances, supplies color and character, darkness and light. Rather than bass-heavy players, I prefer those who enable the music to leave the ground and float.


Brahms was a pianist who in his early days did not hesitate to present, in a concert, an operatic paraphrase by Thalberg. I like to imagine him seated at the piano, short but handsome, at the Schumanns. The combination of technical bravura with rootedness in the music of Bach and Beethoven and a touch of Kapellmeister-Kreisler Romanticism must have electrified Robert and Clara. An inclination toward virtuosity and the presentation of new and prodigious technical hurdles remained a hallmark of at least part of his pianistic output. In this, as well as in a recurring predilection for Hungarian gypsyness, one can detect a kinship with his older musical counterpart Franz Liszt.

In the D-Minor Concerto, considered to be a reaction to the outbreak of Schumann’s insanity and reworked in several versions, Brahms created the most monumental symphonic work for piano and orchestra. Its grandeur, heroic as well as moving, is still free from a proliferation of parallel thirds and sixths, but it also avoids an over-abundance of polyrhythmic complexities. When the young composer played the work in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus he seemed to have been fairly happy with himself. However, the audience hissed. It is easy to assume that his listeners would have had some trouble taking in the solo part at all—on the pianos of his day even such athletic piano writing would, next to the orchestra, have had virtually no chance.

With all my admiration for the later variations, rhapsodies, intermezzi, and piano quartets, and a respectful bow toward the huge symphonic-chamber hybrid of the B-Flat Concerto, the purest Brahms remains for me the one between the first Piano Trio and the first String Sextet. To it, and particularly to the D-Minor Concerto, goes my love.


A conductor once lectured me: “If a pianist plays all the notes of a chord equally loudly, then he demonstrates a good technique.” No wonder his own conducting lacked warmth and refinement.

Be aware of the middle voices. Chords can be illuminated from within.


There are concert pianists who feel most comfortable when they are alone with the public. They get all the attention. Then there is the musical partner happy to have company and a raised music stand on the piano with music on it. The genre of the piano concerto combines these two types. The soloist has to dominate yet, at times, be sufficiently discreet in chamber music fashion. Between these two positions Mozart’s piano concertos lie roughly in the middle. As a body of works they have remained, at least from K. 271 on, a veritable wonder of the world. Their range extends from the most personal—D minor (K. 466), C minor (K. 491)—to the most official, in C major (K. 503).

Beethoven went on from there. His five concertos strike me as sharply characterized individuals, which makes them eminently suitable for performance as a cycle. One could jokingly, and in reverse familial chronology, speak of two very lively teenagers (B flat and C major), a young man (C minor) with a strongly pronounced inner life (in E major!), and their parents (G major—mother, E flat—father). In spite of the glory of subsequent piano concertos, such classic flights of excellence have hardly been equaled. But the species itself has remained very much alive—as the works of Schoenberg, Bartók, Prokofiev, Messiaen (Oiseaux exotiques), or Ligeti impressively demonstrate.

Already in the works of J.S. Bach, the arch-founder of the piano concerto, there occurs a splendid fully fledged cadenza, namely that of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. It is “through-composed,” while classical cadenzas subsequently became, or feigned to be, improvisations. They now lead by detour from the six-four chord to the tutti of the orchestra. Mozart’s many original cadenzas never seriously depart from the basic tonality! Anyone who supplies cadenzas where Mozart didn’t leave his own should respect this important feature. The next generation then started the daredevil game of modulating anywhere and everywhere: cadenzas became areas for flights of fancy. They explode the character of the movement and wreck classical conventions left and right. Beethoven, in his giant cadenza for his C-Major Concerto, cheerfully runs amok.


Watching singers and conductors is, for pianists, the most important source of learning. While the singer reminds us of the need to sing as well as to speak, the conductor offers us the orchestra as a model of balance, color, and rhythm. (The image of the pianist as a ten-fingered orchestra seems to originate with Hans von Bülow.) Our tempo modifications should be “conductable” as long as the piece doesn’t demand an improvisatory approach. In our mind, we conduct ourselves! Next to the rhythmic recklessness of some all too soloistic players, ensemble rhythm serves as a corrective.

In piano concertos, most conductors will try to be helpful as long as the pianist has a precise concept of the whole piece and doesn’t ask for the absurd and impossible. The soloist’s ideas need to be relayed in advance. There are, however, those conductors who indicate, after having been told three things: “Don’t tell me a fourth; I won’t remember it anyway.”


For many cultures, music and dance are inseparable. Beyond the suites and partitas of the Baroque era, dance and dancing have remained an important element of music well into the twentieth century. There have even been musicians who insist that the essence of all music is dance. I personally wouldn’t like to go that far lest a Credo or Dies irae may turn out to be skipping along.

Where we frequently have to think and feel in terms of dancing is in minuets, scherzos, and finales. All final movements of Beethoven’s concertos dance. For the player this means that the listener, in his imagination, should feel the urge to dance along, inspired by a rhythm that, as it were, celebrates itself and irresistibly takes possession of the dancers’ bodies.


Romantic sovereign of the piano. Creator of the religious piano piece. Chronicler of musical pilgrimages. Ceaseless practitioner of transcriptions and paraphrases. Radical precursor of the modern. Musical source of Franck and Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Ligeti.

Familiarity with Liszt’s piano works will make it evident that he was the piano’s supreme artist. What I have in mind is not his transcendental pianistic skill but the reach of his expressive power. He, and only he, as a “genius of expression” (Schumann), revealed the full horizon of what the piano was able to offer. Within this context, the pedal became a tool of paramount importance.

Liszt’s uncertain standing as a composer can be traced back to a number of reasons: the variable quality of his works (with few exceptions, his finest achievements can be found in his piano music); the stylistic panorama of his compositions, which shows the influence of German and French music, Italian opera, the Hungarian gypsy manner, and Gregorian chant; and finally the fact that Liszt’s music is dependent like no other on the quality of the performance. To use an aphorism by Friedrich Hebbel, music here “only becomes visible when the correct gaze is focused on the writing.”

Liszt’s outstanding piano works, among which I would only like to mention the B-Minor Sonata, Années de pélérinage, the Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” La Lugubre gondola, and the finest of the Etudes, are for me on a par with those of Chopin and Schumann. His B-Minor Sonata surpasses, in originality, boldness, and expressive range, anything that has been written in this genre since Beethoven and Schubert.

According to Lina Ramann, his first biographer, we should see Liszt above all as a lyrical tone poet, “rhetorician, rhapsodist, and mime.” She demands from the Liszt player “the grand style,” inwardness (Innerlichkeit), and passion.

In a work like Vallée d’Obermann, all these qualities are evident. The improvisatory arbitrariness often associated with Liszt is contradicted by accounts of his playing in later years. It seems to me of crucial importance that, over a period of twelve years, Liszt remained in close contact with the Weimar orchestra as its principal conductor. A work like the B-Minor Sonata needs to be perceived in this context. Leo Weiner’s remarkable orchestration of the sonata can provide more essential information for the performer than the urge to whip up a succession of feverish dreams. With their metronome markings, both the Liszt-Pädagogium and Siloti’s edition of Totentanz in the Eulenburg pocket scores point to the fact that much of Liszt’s music is nowadays played at overheated speeds. The last thing Liszt deserves is bravura for its own sake. Likewise, he should be shielded from anything that sounds perfumed, or what used to be called effeminate. Wilhelm Kempff’s 1950 recording of the First Legend (St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds) presents us with poetic Liszt playing of unsurpassed quality.

Copyright ©Alfred Brendel 2013 (to be published in the UK by Faber & Faber Ltd. on September 5, 2013).

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