Alfred Brendel: the last interview

Stephen Plaistow Sun 4th January 2015

Alfred Brendel, one of the world’s great pianists, gives his final interview to Stephen Plaistow as he retires from the concert platform

We usually meet in Hampstead but this time it is in Dorset, on a wet and blustery morning, at his country address, not exactly miles from anywhere but remote enough to perplex most in-car navigation systems. Friends tell me people get lost in these country lanes and are never seen again. I get lost but in the end find him and park near some serious-looking tractors. What follows takes place in an atmosphere of unbuttoned good humour, even high spirits, and amid much laughter. Yet I feel decidedly odd knowing that, a week or so earlier I heard Alfred Brendel in a concert for the last time. One accepts that the span of a man’s life is limited but concertgoers overheard during the interval at the Royal Festival Hall seemed to be expecting that all pianists should go on until they drop. I begin our conversation by asking Brendel what he feels about this. 

AB: In a questionnaire, I once answered ‘How would you like to die?’ by saying ‘In good time’. It may be difficult to select the right moment for dying but there seemed a possibility to stop playing out of choice. I wanted to stop when I am maybe still in pretty good shape – the difference with my colleagues being that I’m not addicted to giving concerts. I did it out of free choice – at least, that’s what I told myself. But I find out now that it really is true. I’ve never been just a pianist or even just a musician; there is actually a lot I want to do and now I am delighted to do it. I wanted to stop two and a half years ago, aged 75, but friends persuaded me to go on for a couple of years. Now I feel the time is right and I shall be happy to end my concert career irrevocably.

It was 60 years ago that I started giving recitals, in Graz; one year later I went in for the Busoni Competition and carried off one of the prizes. But, for me, a musical career was always a long-term proposition. There was talent – let’s see how I can help it unfold: whether the circumstances are right and whether some luck will be on my side. I had an idea that I wanted as a musician and pianist to achieve certain things by the time I’m 50. Fortunately it has gone on from there – there was still plenty to learn. Now it shouldn’t be drawn out until some of my faculties might deteriorate, or until I become a glorification of arthritis. Already as a relatively young person I realised that this is what ‘late style’ could be all about, at least in instrumental music – think of late Liszt!

You say some pianists want to go on for ever, but there are very few actually who go on into old age and these of course are the ones people remember. But there are probably the same number of pianists who have to quit the profession early and who drop out because of troubles and are incapacitated, or die, before they reach 70.

SP: Will you miss concert life? You did tell me a while ago that you were still enjoying giving concerts.

AB: Yes, well, on the whole I have enough lovely experiences with the public to keep them in my mind, to cherish them, but particularly after this year when I find so much warmth and generosity in the audiences. I think it’s sufficient. What I will miss probably is the adrenalin. Not in terms of excitement of course, of which I have plenty, but in terms of its medical benefits – it takes away some pain, from nerves, muscles, joints; so I shall have to see how I can replace that.

SP: But you’re looking good.

AB: Yes, not too bad. As to the public, I am most grateful to it, in spite of all those obnoxious coughers and the mobile telephones and hearing aids going off – the public has remained one of the stable factors in my career. They really enabled me to keep going and to be internationally acclaimed. There really is no difference actually where I play, in terms of the public – they also kept faithful when I somewhat changed the diet of my concerts about 15 years ago, when I had some trouble with my left arm, and I had to find out how they would take to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in the long run. They seemed to like it, and of course there are so many works. 

SP: You said to me once, with characteristic modesty, how pleased you were that people still wanted to hear you.

AB: Yes, one of my books in America is called Me, of all people. As it happens, for quite a few years I’ve been one of the pianists who sells out halls, wherever it may be. In that connection, it made me wonder if my playing was really as cerebral as some people made out. I would like to ask them whether it was so that I could have such a big public in so many places! I doubt it!

I would have preferred not to announce my retirement but it was technically impossible. I would have preferred just to stop and say it’s over. On the whole, these farewell concerts have turned out to be enlightening. When I have been told ‘you are leaving a big hole in the lives of so many people’, I felt glad that I could leave something behind, even if it’s a hole.

I always also had a literary life. I was not an amateur but it was my second existence and I shall pursue this quite a bit more. I shall give lectures – at festivals and universities: there is already quite a big plan for 2009, from June on. I shall participate in conferences. I shall give readings of my poetry – this I have done anyway but I now have much more time to pursue this.

SP: Illustrated lectures?

AB: Yes, I will keep contact with the piano…two of these lectures I have given before but not made use of for a long time: ‘Does classical music have to be entirely serious?’, which I gave as the Darwin Lecture at Cambridge; and then there is another on ‘Character in music’; and there will be a third on ‘Light and shade in interpretation’ and going into details of good and bad habits, including some of the habits of period performers.

And then of course I will have more time to look after a few young pianists. Until now I have done that whenever I could. [They include the Austrian Till Fellner and Paul Lewis]. At the moment, for instance, there’s Kit Armstrong, the 16-year-old boy who is a real prodigy. He is most astonishing, and not just playing the piano but as a composer – quite amazing. He has composed since he was seven. He is also a mathematical wizard, the most natural Bach player I have ever met and he has a phenomenal memory to retain it all…he takes no time to study something and then he can play it by heart in a most assured way. Watching this boy I understood much better how the mind of somebody like Mozart or Schubert or Bach worked, who turned out an enormous number of compositions – the mind simply works ten times faster than ours: faster, and at the same time with complete concentration.

SP: I know the answer, I think, but I just wonder whether, under cover of darkness, Brendel might be tempted to steal back to the recording studio to say another word about something or other, or to surprise us with some unexpected enthusiasm: a version of Ludus tonalis of Hindemith, perhaps, or the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. He reassures himself that I am joking; emphatically, enthusiasms of his these are not. Yet an involvement with his legacy of recordings will remain – appropriately, given that he has always taken such an interest in recording, making a success of it and making it serve him as he listened to himself and developed as an artist.

AB: No, I will not do more recordings. But what I have been hoping until now is that I shall find live recordings from my concerts that I can have published. I had started a series called ‘Artist’s Choice’ but there has been a big change of personnel at Decca/Philips and hardly anybody is there who was there before, so hardly any publicity was done because of these changes. The former president approved a collection of some orchestral live performances which has not yet been pursued by the new people; and I am sad about that and still hope that at some stage they can come out because I particularly enjoyed them – there is a Schumann Concerto in Vienna with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic, and a Brahms D minor Concerto in Munich, from several years ago, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Colin Davis; and there is some Mozart.

This is the recording situation. But having found out that it is my farewell tour, Decca/Philips has brought out a package in the ‘Artist’s Choice’ series – four double-CDs. Before that, dealers often didn’t know these recordings existed. I collected them because I have recorded a great deal and I wanted to show people or suggest what they should listen to in the first place. It is not a complete choice but it is one I have made myself, and together with the now discontinued ‘Great Pianists’ series 
this represents some sort of essence of what I  have accomplished. Some live performances in BBC recordings have appeared not as part of ‘Artist’s Choice’ but separately. They include the performance of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations which I prefer, the last one I gave in London at the Royal Festival Hall…and some other things where I recognised my playing more vividly than on some other recordings, even if there may be some wrong notes – but I have never been a perfectionist of that sort. And as an oddity there is a Chopin performance, the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise, that I did for the BBC many years ago.

SP: I produced that Chopin recording, together with a handful of other Chopin polonaises, and much else; our first encounter, some 45  years ago, was in the Diabelli Variations which was Brendel’s first broadcast in this country. We begin to reminisce and I remind myself that we should perhaps get on, before Gramophone readers have a picture of us as two bus-pass figures, somewhere on a park bench. Conductors now, and Mozart. Brendel has always been a great concerto player – not all pianists of his calibre are – and he is ending his playing career with two of the Mozart concertos, the early one in E flat, K271, which he likes to refer to as one of the wonders of the world, and the C minor, K491. I tell him how much I enjoyed K271 at the Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia and Mackerras; he is sorry I missed the C minor at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival, saying, ‘That was the best performance we did together of the piece, over the years’.

I had been at one of the rehearsals of K271 and observed how closely soloist, conductor and orchestra worked together, in a matching endeavour that had Brendel involved in every detail of the performance to come, not just the piano part, and to a degree not every conductor might welcome.

AB: No, indeed. It is very easy to do these things with Charles. Before I came here now I had concerts with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra – very good. Unfortunately it is only now that I get together with them, but I really regret it. I think he is one of the up-and-coming great conductors and it’s such a good orchestra and the connection between the two is something special. And then I went to the Tonhalle Orchestra with David Zinman, who is one of my old preferred partners and has done wonders for the Tonhalle – now in excellent shape and a really first-class orchestra. With Zinman in Zürich they have been together 14 years now and they like him so much they applaud when he comes on stage. I have never seen that anywhere. And he’s not someone who talks arias to them and tells them how wonderful they are, not at all – he’s actually rather reticent, but they adore him.

SP: I take him back to his early recordings of Mozart concertos, which included K271 and another E flat Concerto, K449, with I Solisti di Zagreb and Antonio Janigro. Memory tells me this was in the mid-1950s; I was still at school and had already acquired my first Brendel LP, of the Schoenberg Concerto.

AB: They were a very good group. I just listened to that recording again lately and they play beautifully. It was Janigro who directed and he was a wonderful cellist and didn’t make the career he should have done, probably for political and personal reasons. Well, he was from Yugoslavia and it was difficult to get out of there. I started playing Mozart in my teens but I had a hard time with his piano music. And then as an 18-year old I went to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer’s class and played the A minor Sonata there, and had to play it again at the final concert of the participants and that opened the door. And in my early 20s one of the first concertos I played was the C major, K503, then there were a number of recordings of Mozart concertos for Vox/Turnabout. I played Mozart concertos for years in Vienna and also at that time in Salzburg, in the matinees with Bernhard Paumgartner. So, those were my early Mozart periods, after which in the 1970s and ’80s Philips enabled me to record all the concertos with Neville Marriner.

Later, there has been another Mozart period, starting 12 or 15 years ago, where I dared to tackle the sonatas too, or more of them than I had played before. Schnabel’s remark about them is still the best – ‘too easy for children, too difficult for artists’. One couldn’t say it more concisely. But I thought it was high time for me to see how far I could get. In my recital programmes this year I have included the F major Sonata K533, which has a later version of the Rondo, K494, as its last movement. It’s one of the finest and trickiest of the sonatas, with hardly any dynamic markings, so the pianist has to make many decisions. I shall be working on it until my last recital! By the way, the earlier F major Sonata, K332, is in the “Artist’s Choice” series, and also the A minor Rondo, K511: two performances I really like.

In my young years the notion that Mozart was predominantly graceful was widespread. [I remember Walter Gieseking’s complete set of the Mozart sonatas, from my young years, and hating it.] Yes, it sounded like very high level sight-reading really…and he also did some concertos with Karajan, and with others, and this was considered to be the ideal Mozart, by some. But even then there had been people who were of the other camp, people such as Edwin Fischer, Bruno Walter and Schnabel, who let the demon in when the music was demonic. I think in my 1960s period I was more on the graceful and poised side and only later began to perceive Mozart’s full range, without – as in some period performances – throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I was once with the violinist Sándor Végh and after some performances we asked ourselves what constituted good Mozart playing: and I said a combination of singing and speaking. I still think this is so. Végh had recounted to me when, as a young man, he had shared a bill with the operatic bass Feodor Chaliapin, doing some solos while the great man took a break and had a fillet steak and half a botttle of burgundy; on observing he was being listened to, Végh asked for his opinion and Chaliapin said: ‘You play very well, but you don’t speak enough.’ I was never inclined to go to such extremes of Klangrede as some of my colleagues have, when the vocal quality of the line gets lost. The ‘speaking’ is a part but the basis has to be singing, cantabile, one of the basic elements of good keyboard playing, as you realise when you read Bach’s preface to the Three-Part Inventions.

SP: Discussion of all this brings to my mind the sometimes declamatory rhetoric of the slow movement of the Jeunehomme, the Ninth Concerto.

AB: In my view, this slow movement is what Gluck should have composed! Yes, a great tragic utterance, and it also has one of Mozart’s greatest cadenzas, the one that I played. And a movement in C minor, one of my favourite keys, which was as important to Mozart as it was to Beethoven: think of the C minor Sonata and Fantasy, the C minor Concerto of course (perhaps the greatest, if I had to choose only one), the C minor Mass, the Adagio and Fugue for strings. You know, I once wrote a poem in which Beethoven murders Mozart in order to take full possession of the key of C minor…

And one needs to say that the Ninth is the Concerto where everything is written out, every note, every lead-in and decoration, which didn’t happen in the later works any more, since they were not finished for print. Thanks to musicologists we now know more about the so-called Jeunehomme Concerto. It used to be thought Mozart couldn’t spell the name but he did get it right in his letter and in fact she was Jenomy or Jenomé, the daughter of a famous dancer. I haven’t seen a picture and there are no accounts but I like to think she must have been very good-looking to inspire him to write this phenomenal piece. It is as if his earlier concertos are by another composer. Suddenly there is a structure and the most wonderful ideas, formal ideas, and yes – as you say – a vision of everything the classical piano concerto could become, in subtlety and richness. For me, it is a perfect work, with that special freshness of something done for the first time and succeeding at the same time. If you look at Mozart’s works, it actually comes too soon. Sometimes with geniuses there are pre-echos of something that will happen later. It is his first masterpiece and it took him quite a long time, actually, until the 
Sinfonia concertante, to get back to this level and sustain it. Also, you realise, looking at what he composed before, that he wasn’t as precocious as Mendelssohn – or even Schubert, when you hear his Fourth Symphony in a really good performance: it is something that Mozart before 21 would not have achieved.

(We talk a lot more, and over lunch, about his repertoire and his revisits to it over the years; about his ways of working; about intellect and instinct.)

AB: Certainly there has to be a response, especially in matters 
of character. I have never been somebody who analyses a piece and then plays it; neither was Schnabel. I want to know the piece well and for it to tell me what it is about, and what is special about it. Structures are relatively easy to get, I mean nearly everybody can do it! Some people maintain, particularly in Germany, following the writings of the critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno, that when you have grasped the structure the character will come by itself, it is implied – but that is not at all the case. As to character and characters, I have always felt actors to be an inspiration. On stage, they have to turn into a character, indeed to impersonate many different characters, and I feel they are my colleagues. When I talk to musicians they often say, what exactly do you mean? Well, they do not appear to have thought about it, or maybe it is not taught that you cannot sit there starting the Moonlight Sonata with a smile 
on your face.

What I want to get is the message from the piece, which doesn’t mean that I block myself out. There is always this simplification – 
oh you know, Brendel is the most modest of people. But no, I don’t expect to get directions from heaven!

SP: I tell him that he always sounds like Brendel, to me, and he takes that as a compliment. It is a pity, I say, that there is so little good writing about music by performers of distinction and I imagine a public that could be hungry for it, when career musicologists write only for themselves, uninterested in a wider readership. 

AB: Well yes, but maybe more in Central Europe and America than here. There are dangers on both sides: one is to be unnecessarily academic, and one is to oversimplify. I abhor oversimplification which I notice all the time, reading two newspapers every day. And I notice too, when I am quoted, that people try to condense what I have already condensed myself, into something that says different things from what I  intended. But I love the challenge because I love to operate with language. I’ve always done that, in German first and then in English. And I’ve found it possible to talk about music without talking nonsense, if you’re careful enough, and I  think you should always be a little witty.

I want to say about music in general – I’ve also had a lot of fun. I was never a tortured person. Although I’m an habitual pessimist I like to be pleasantly surprised, and though I think the world absurd, I do not succumb to the tristesse of this statement but, rather, I try to find the absurdity funny enough to laugh about.

SP: The claim has been made that, in Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Alfred Brendel is the first artist since Artur Schnabel to enjoy full authority in this field. I do believe that to be true, but I  suppose we must now put the claim in the past tense. What an inspiration he has been. Yet that inspiration need not dim, as this magnificent artist turns his talents to new endeavours. His admirers will watch, and listen, with expectation.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Gramophone.

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