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
Alfred Brendel
Alfred Brendel; drawing by David Levine


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.