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 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

Art, Brendel tells Meyer, “can express so much: and the numinous occupies a considerable part of it. Religious belief remains for me a moving invention of man.” For an agnostic, Brendel spends a surprising amount of energy meditating on devils, angels, saints, and other mystical manifestations. He talks about Edwin Fischer’s “musical character, which was neither artificial nor forced, but which bordered on the saintly.” His description of Robert Musil’s writing—“mystical experience, albeit viewed by a scientific mind, looking out over cognitive boundaries and examining what is verifiable”—might almost describe his own approach to the keyboard. I am reminded of the German painter Gerhard Richter, a near-exact contemporary of Brendel’s, another ironical man, who also emerged from a childhood under Hitler to immerse himself in a highly traditional art as a constructive alternative to the destruction of the war. Both are enemies of the benign; skeptical, clever men whose art, in its modernity, has sometimes seemed too cerebral, and who share a curious and complicated, almost embarrassed ambivalence toward religion, to which they attribute an abstract, aesthetic allure, as if in lieu of faith.

It should go without saying that Me of All People, which summarizes much that Brendel has said elsewhere about composers, performing, and other pianists, is a compendium of observations that will entertain music lovers. It could serve as a model of how such books should be presented. Brendel is unsurprisingly but comically blunt about music he dislikes. Puccini, Rachmaninoff, and Lehár constituted “a Bermuda triangle…in which primary, genuine, noble emotions were in dire danger of being sucked away.”* Holst’s “Planets” and Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor concerto are “kitsch.” Finally, “given the choice of playing [Max] Reger’s piano concerto or dying… I’ve always thought I’d prefer to die.”

He sums up the condition of his musical life, which seems to take place in pleasurable, cheerfully grumpy retreat from the public chaos around him:

There are some musicians I know who have nothing else in their heads but music, and whose achievements are nonetheless considerable. I would therefore not make being highly cultured a precondition. Nevertheless I recommend people to immerse themselves in culture in the broadest sense. I’m always aware that I am basically an aesthete, one for whom the aesthetic viewpoint makes the world bearable—while the world outside aesthetics is frankly absurd.


If Brendel exemplifies pianism at this fin de siècle and into the new century, Vladimir de Pachmann, whose biography Mark Mitchell has lately written, exemplified pianism at the end of the nineteenth century into the early twentieth. I have little doubt that he is exactly the sort of antique player Brendel loathes, but the contrast is telling about both of them, about humor and classical pianism, and about shifting musical tastes during the last century. Actually, he is the sort of figure Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, whom Brendel so much admires, might consider one of their own. Now largely forgotten, Pachmann had a huge career in Europe and the United States into the 1920s. Having received instruction from Liszt and from one of Chopin’s last assistants, Vera Kologrivoff Rubio, he was regarded for many years as the greatest Chopin interpreter of his time and was one of the half-dozen most famous pianists in the world, with giants like Anton Rubinstein and Leopold Godowsky. By far, he was the most eccentric of them.

Max Beerbohm, Raymond Chandler, Alice B. Toklas, and Vladimir Nabokov (in the short story “Bachmann”) all wrote about him, as did Arthur Symons, the poet who linked him with Verlaine, Wilde, and Swinburne as a fin-de-siècle decadent. The quality of his playing in its prime, around the 1880s and 1890s, can only be surmised from reviews or guessed at from his recordings of Chopin and others, made later in life, when he pioneered the new technology of 78s. Contemporaries compared its delicacy to chiffon. Godowsky likened it to an “exquisitely scented perfume—evaporative, volatile, refined, suggestive, enchanting.” It was, Godowsky added, “the most individual form of artistic expression.” Liszt was said to have called him “the poet of the piano.”

Pachmann was the great master of feathery pianissimos, the softest possible degrees of playing, which gave rise to the passing words “pianissimist” and “Pachmannissimo.” But he was equally, and eventually more, famous for his onstage monkeyshines, which seemed to increase with age: Pachmann would mutter, grimace, and lecture audiences in a comic patois of mixed languages while he played. His appearance was like the dwarf Mime, one contemporary diarist wrote. While other pianists, like Rubinstein and Paderewski, affected suavity on stage, he appeared as a homunculus who played like an angel. The extreme contrast was a selling point, and cunning: before the modern mass media existed, Pachmann made himself known internationally as a wild extrovert whose playing was profoundly introverted, his burlesque in tension with a genuinely subtle talent—it was an almost chaste beauty of sound coming from a kind of beast in tails.

Pachmann’s act, to the extent that that’s what it was, was all too much for some people. “M. Vladimir de Pachmann gave his well-known pantomimic performance,” George Bernard Shaw reported, “with accompaniments by Chopin.” The dour Rachmaninoff, who in many ways anticipated the sober outlook of a succeeding generation, was among those who called Pachmann a charlatan. Rachmaninoff endured a recital at the Albert Hall during which Pachmann repeated the same works several times and chattered constantly. But Pachmann was only part actor. He was also part naif, a man-child who did whatever immediately satisfied his sensual desires—and tone-deaf to what was most outrageous about his behavior. Wearing his hair long after Liszt, and collecting fantastically expensive diamonds, which he kept in his pockets even onstage, like talismans or rosaries, he was known to dip each finger in brandy before a recital, walk onto the platform, stare at the piano stool, raise it, lower it, raise it, lower it, walk offstage, and return with a phone book, out of which he ceremoniously ripped a single page, placed the book on the stool, and sat down to play.

W.N.P. Barbellion, the British diarist, recounted a Pachmann performance:

As usual [Pachmann] kept us waiting for 10 minutes. Then a short, fat, middle-aged man strolled casually on to the platform and everyone clapped violently—so it was Pachmann…. He beamed on us and then shrugged his shoulders and went on shrugging them until his eye caught the music stool, which seemed to fill him with amazement. He stalked it carefully, held out one hand to it caressingly, and finding all was well, went two steps backwards, clasping his hands before him and always gazing at the little stool in mute admiration, his eyes sparkling with pleasure, like Mr. Pickwick’s on the discovery of the archaeological treasure. He approached once more, bent down and ever so gently moved it about 7/8ths of an inch nearer the piano. He then gave it a final pat with his right hand and sat down.

Mitchell has reconstructed Pachmann’s colorful life from a partisan’s perspective, as best he can in the absence of private diaries and other first-hand documents. His purpose is to redeem Pachmann, and by implication a corner of an anachronistic world of creative pianism and popular entertainment nearly antithetical to the exacting, predictable, specialized, and sometimes bloodless modern concert scene, which was emerging during Pachmann’s later years. “Of all the pianists of the generation born between 1840 and 1860, Pachmann has experienced the most precipitous decline in posthumous reputation,” Mitchell laments.

That’s probably right. Modern music writers who have bothered to notice Pachmann have dismissed him as a joke with a shaky technique; I suspect they have never listened closely to his recordings. He was an artist of bygone and peculiar virtues. The recordings testify to both his unevenness and his originality. He began to record in 1907 for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company in London. He made his last recordings for HMV in 1927. Allan Evans, who provides a Pachmann discography in Mitchell’s book, has recently produced a fascinating disc of remastered recordings, spanning those same years, with works by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Joachim Raff, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt.

You hear on this disc a truly original performer, making music fresh, for better and occasionally worse. A Chopin étude, during which Pachmann chatters, was recorded in his decline and includes dropped notes, but the playing is finely colored. The Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1, a late recording, lurches annoyingly: Pachmann delays to the point of distraction the right-hand melody after playing the left- hand bass notes, a quirk of nineteenth-century pianism, awkward to modern ears, carried to excess.

But his versions of the Chopin Nocturnes in G Major, Op. 37, No. 2, and F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, are forward-moving, energetic, the passagework fleet, fresh, and unsentimental. There’s sly humor and the proof of a very brilliant, crystalline technique in his playing of Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, and Étude in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 5. The disc ends with a fragment of Liszt’s Polonaise No. 2 in E Major, conceived in a manner different from his playing of Chopin, conveying purity and rigor—the melody rising above a sound structure of splendid architecture.

An aristocrat, not a clown, on record, Pachmann at his best was surprisingly restrained, virtuosic, and natural- sounding. His reputation for liberty-taking and distortion is the spillover from his outlandish behavior. But distortion of phrasing is a relative matter, anyway. Sticking to the score in generally strict rhythm, a modern dictum, does not guarantee that the spirit of the work is obeyed. Pachmann’s elastic line suggests to me an influence of the great old bel canto singers. Chopin insisted that his students listen to great singers if they wanted to know how to play his music, and Pachmann, after all, considered himself Chopin’s heir. Symons, who revered him, described the quality of his playing in nautical terms: “The pianoforte was once a ship with sails, beautiful in the wind; it is now a steamer, with loud propellers and blinding smoke.” Modern players “sacrifice beauty to noise,” he said, “…with the single exception of Pachmann.”

Victorians clearly regarded Pachmann suspiciously, if not with hostility, when he was not playing small romantic compositions. This view went hand-in-hand with the implication that his playing was effeminate. Musical Times, in 1883, about a Pachmann performance of Beethoven, stated that “the masculine breadth of style which really is needed was not forthcoming.” A critic for the Chicago Daily Journal in 1911 wrote: “De Pachmann gives a very perfect example of what, according to fiction and poetry, a woman’s playing at its best ought to be, but what in real life it never is.”

He was born in Odessa in 1848, the son of a law professor and, or so he claimed, a Turkish countess. He added the “de” himself. His father studied music and attended Haydn’s funeral in Vienna, where he met Beethoven. Pachmann was sent to Vienna in 1867 to study with Joseph Dachs, a pupil of Czerny, who had been Beethoven’s student. Depending on when he told the story, Pachmann claimed to have awed Dachs by memorizing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier or all twenty-four Chopin Études in a few days. Back in Russia, he made his successful debut; then he dropped from sight for eight years. He told a journalist later that he had retired to a monastery. The truth is that having heard Carl Tausig, Liszt’s pupil, he decided he needed to practice some more, reemerging in the late 1870s to perform to great success in Germany, after which, as the Herald-Tribune obituary of Pachmann put it, “De Pachmann failed to find fault with De Pachmann’s playing.”

By the 1880s, he was world-famous, playing to royalty. His tours earned him millions of dollars. He met an Australian woman, Maggie Okey, a pianist whom he happened to hear in recital in London one evening. There’s a story that Pachmann hissed her when she played a Henselt étude during one concert. She became his sole pupil, then wife; they had two sons. After they divorced, she opened the Pachmann School of Pianoforte Playing in Paris and married Fernand-Gustave-Gaston Labori, the eminent French lawyer who defended Dreyfus and Zola. Okey and Labori, fascinating characters, as steady and intelligent as Pachmann seemed unstable, remained large in his imagination. He continued to speak wistfully of her, telling people she was “my wife, Madame Labori.”

That said, in 1905, he met Francesco Pallottelli. Pallottelli was twenty-one, a male hustler working as a waiter at Ranieri’s in Rome. Their relationship was sexual, and Pallottelli also acted as his secretary and manager. He is Mitchell’s Iago. When Pachmann was in his late seventies and becoming senile, Pallottelli arranged a concert tour, which made millions, the money going, Mitchell writes, to support Pallottelli and Alice, the woman he married, in the Villa Pachmann in Rome, where Pachmann lived as a kind of boarder in his own house. Near the end of Pachmann’s performing days, Pallottelli shamelessly booked him at the Mayfair Hotel in London as supper entertainment, and he later used his association with Pachmann to curry favor with Mussolini, someone Pachmann would have despised.

Pachmann died on January 6, 1933, the same year Edwin Fischer recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier, two years after Kempff recorded several of the Preludes and Fugues, two years after Brendel was born. The age of nineteenth-century pianism had not yet completely faded, but a new musical era was emerging. Pachmann’s comedy was out of sync with a classical-music world becoming, to use Brendel’s phrase, entirely serious. Pachmann was buried at the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome in a plot owned by the Pallottelli family. In 1967, Pallottelli’s heirs deposited a second corpse there, of one Mario Casaccia. Mitchell reports that Casaccia’s name is now so much more conspicuous on the gravestone that were you to visit the grave today you could easily pass it by without realizing that it is Pachmann’s.

This Issue

June 12, 2003