I first realised there was a problem with Alfred Brendel when, a decade ago over dinner with the Menuhins, he muttered ‘you made an intellectual of me,’ and turned his head away.
I knew what he was on about, just about. Some time before, I had written a playful op-ed dividing pianists into two categories, eggheads and fruitcakes. The first are balding brainboxes who commune with Schopenhauer in their down time. The other category is full of nuts like Vladimir de Pachmann, who carried a smelly sock that he claimed belonged to Chopin, and Vladimir Horowitz who only gave recitals at 4pm and lived on a diet of Dover sole.
On balance, I reckoned, Mr B belonged to Category A. Apparently, he has never forgiven me.
Last weekend in a Guardian quiz, he was asked: ‘What is the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?’ Alfred Brendel replied: ‘Cerebral pianist (Norman Lebrecht).’
Well, I guess no critic gets it right all the time, but when an artist cites Stendhal and Bunuel as his leisure pastimes and Peter Brook as his most admired living person, it might be reasonable to suggest that he has a whiff of bookishness about him, no matter how wacky an eccentric he would like to seem.
Even in his last season of playing concerts, I don’t see Mr B coming on stage in a polka-dot tie and tutu. He is certifiably sane and fit for purpose, which is more than can be said of one or two younger colleagues. He is also unbendingly serious in his approach to music.
I am truly sorry for having cut him to the quick. I certainly didn’t mean ‘intellectual’ in the English, pejorative sense, meaning someone not fit to be seen on BBC television.
Alfred, this is an apology. If you promise to play another couple of years, I’ll upgrade you in my next piece to fruit-and-nut. Deal?