Alfred Brendel, 90: ‘I long for the physicality of a concert’

Alfred Brendel, 90: ‘I long for the physicality of a concert’


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2021

The pianist, who turns 90 tomorrow, has given a few reflections to the German press agency.

On Covid: We all long for the physicality of the concert, to be there, to be inside, to breathe the same air, to share the risk and success.

On Brexit: I put great hopes in the UK, which was not so great within the European Community. However, the political development of recent years has rid me of illusions.

On his career: I gave concerts from the age of 17 to 77.


  • The bandersnatch says:

    Many happy returns to a great musician and intellect. Was lucky to have heard and seen him.

  • Gustavo says:

    Alfred Brexit


    • Jack says:

      Gustavo, I’d suggest you read Edgar Self’s post right below your own.

      • Gustavo says:

        Yes I agree and should have showed more respect.

        But it doesn’t change the fact that poor Schwammerl died at 31 – so asking a 90-year old retired Schubert expert about the effects of COVID-19 (and Brexit) seems completely out of proportion.

  • Edgar Self says:

    “The snow-wreath’d honor of extreme age.” , Alfred Brendel enters his tenth decade as thinker, poet, teacher, father, writer, Ehemann, intellectual, lecturer, musician, pianist, admirer of Alfred Cortot Goethe, Edwin Fischer, and I hope Thomas Mann, an ornament to his profession. Happy 90th Birthday, insofar as that is possible, success to your Goethe essay,nd joy of your young associates, Paul Lewis, uva.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      My dear, dear Edgar….
      Happy New Year to you!
      I hesitate to state, right in the teeth of your beautifully expressed tribute, my feelings that I do not share your high opinion of Brendel as a pianist and musician. I myself believe him to be a minor player in the greater world of pianism and musical interpretation.
      He certainly has longevity on his side – as he says: “I gave concerts from the age of 17 to 77.”
      But I am happy to sincerely give all my best wishes for good health and a long life to Alfred Brendel on his 90th birthday!
      Stay well and safe, Herr Brendel!

  • Mark (London) says:

    The greatest Schubert interpretations

  • Татьяна says:

    Счастлива, что живу в одно время с большим музыкантом. Счастливого юбилея и Многая лета!

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Using Google Translate:
      “I am happy that I live at the same time as a great musician. Happy Anniversary and Many Years!”

      I heartily agree!

  • Alexander T says:

    Very overrated.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    > “We all long for the physicality of the concert, to be there, to be inside, to breathe the same air, to share the risk and success.”

    I don’t.
    Especially not “to breathe the same air”.
    An insalubrious thing to do in a concert hall at the best of times, and those are not coming back.

    Besides, what exactly does Maestro Brendel mean by “sharing the risk and success” ? Whose risk, exactly? Whose success, precisely?
    Not the first Brendelian fallacy.

    “In the summer of 1957, I recorded the Bach Fifth Partita, the first of the partitas that I put on tape for CBS. The date is significant only because I had just returned from my first European tour—which consisted of concerts in Austria, Germany, and the Soviet Union—and during that tour, and during the months leading up to it, the Fifth Partita, which is a great favorite of mine, was an integral part of almost every program. Even if it was not on the program, its Sarabande or some other movement was used as an encore, so that I had played this work, or portions of it, literally dozens of times within a very few months. And then I went to record it.

    Now, three years before it became contaminated with this concert-hall experience, I had also recorded it, not for a commercial label, but for the overseas service of the CBC. That earlier recording is not technically better than the one done in 1957, but it is a much more integrated concept of the music than the later version. And the reason for that is very simple: during those concert experiences I had to pro­ject that particular piece to a very large audience in most cases, and as a consequence I had added hairpins—crescendi and diminuendi and similar un-Bachian affectations—where they didn’t need to be. I had exaggerated cadences in order to emphasize the separation of sentences or paragraphs, and so on. In other words, I was making an unnecessarily rhetorical statement about the music, simply as a consequence of having attempted to project it in very spacious acoustic environments.

    In a studio, where the pickup is close to the piano, you can achieve a very similar effect to that which the listener enjoys at home. The relationship of the piano to a microphone which is, let’s say, eight feet away is very similar to the relationship between the listener at home and his speakers. There’s a one-to-one aspect in both situations. But no such relationship exists when one is sitting on a stage, like the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, and projecting a Bach partita to the first row of seats and to the top balcony simultaneously.”
    ——CBC interview with Glenn Gould, 1975

    So much for “sharing the risk and success”.

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      March 11, 2007 By MERCURY NEWS
      Alfred Brendel highly opinionated about many things:

      Q. What don’t you enjoy about Glenn Gould’s playing?

      A. He was exactly what I don’t want to be as a performer. With all his extraordinary gifts and the control of the piano and the feeling that he gives you that he achieves what he wants to do, for me he contradicts the composer almost habitually.

      Q. What accounts for his massive popularity?

      A. The security of his delivery, the eccentricity, and the fact that some listeners want to hear things in a way they have never heard things done before, without asking how much relevance it has to the piece.

      There have always been some eccentrics, and he was one of them.

      • Alexander T says:

        He has been very opinionated about pianists with abilities vastly superior to his own. (With some pretty silly comments about Debussy and Ravel as well).

    • Novagerio says:

      Mr. du Jour (I refuse to insult Křenek), clearly you are not a performing musician and don’t even have the imagination to know what it is about.
      In simple terms, the risk is how you (supposed to be a performing artist) respond to the presence of the audience, in order to satisfyingly give them what you want to share – that, after years and decades of practising. The success consists mostly in having succeeded with just that, or anything close to. Making music is sharing one’s abilities and passions in a room with others. Sitting under the mike in an empty studio is the very opposite.
      Perhaps you should mind your own fallacies. Or then, consider becoming a music critic.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I don’t know why he’s being so fussy. I saw him in a concert, with Bach and Beethoven, and……

    Seen him only once in real life off stage, and never have seen anyone looking that confused. EVER!

    Was trying to listen to records at the Utrecht Public Library, and he walked in surveilling the whole place. I thought he was looking for his son. Who I’ve also never met, making me wonder….

  • Gustavo says:

    Why do I always get him mixed up with Georg Kreisler and Friedrich Gulda?

    I suppose humour is the connection, or Vienna, or both?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Happy New Year, Greg! Ninetieth birthday wishes aren’t tendered under oath; reservations I save for another time. I haven’t really given an opinion other than implied, and calling him an ornament to his profession. That doesn’t mean I don’t have one.

    Brendel wrote once that he wished someone could explain to him why the recordings of Edwin Fischer and Alfred Cortot from the 1930s sound better to him than his own. That is very revealing.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I believe, Edgar, that Brendel was referring to the differences in recording techniques between the acoustical and electrical 78 RPM eras and the later analog tape and digital eras.
      There is a presence and solidity to the old coarse-groove shellacs that the later techniques just couldn’t quite match, and Brendel was commenting on that difference.
      The explanation is understandable but involved; it’s too long to go into detail here, but it involves the physical shape of the sound waves as engraved onto the wax (“direct-to-disc”, so to speak) as opposed to the magnetization of microscopic iron oxide particles on recording tape; the differences in playback techniques are significant as well.
      I was at a demonstration one time where two acoustic 78s were played on a large wind-up Victrola in a large-ish living room. One of the records was of a solo trumpet; the other was a marimba ensemble.
      I would have sworn that those musicians were in the room with me. The sense of their physical presence was simply uncanny.
      I have heard all sorts of high-end sound systems, surround sound, SACDs and the like, and I have never heard such truly lifelike reproduction as I heard from those old shellacs.

  • I enjoyed Brendel concerts in Birmingham Symphony Hall Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata + another time Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Thankyou for these great occasions! A true piano legend! Fire, ice, heart!!

  • JussiB says:

    These days Alfred Brendel thinks of himself as a writer not a pianist, that’s how far gone he has become.

  • Douglas says:

    As always with views on any musician, things are highly subjective.

    I listened to Brendel last night – Beethoven’s early sonatas, op. 2/2, op.7, and then op.111 (his third cycle). As I listened once again in admiration, I saw no reason to change my own long-held opinion (formed not just from the records but from his London recitals). For me, there are many great Beethoven pianists and there is Alfred Brendel.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Brendel is the last of five young pianists who began careers in the aftermath of World War II in Central Europe; Geza Anda, Joerg Demus, Friedrich Gulda, Paul Badura-Skoda, and Brendel himself. That was another world, and a long time ago. They were new names to learn. One got confused with a San Francisco street that as a result became kmown as Geda Anz Stree, near St. Ignatius church and the univerity.

    We heard them play and sorted through their records. Brendel’s included “Islamey” and Liszt rhapsodies. Geza Anda’s were prized, but then he died. Demus and Badura-Skoda played Schubert and Mozart duets, Gulda veered into jaz and wore bandanas. Demus cocllected historical keyboard instruments and became a sensitive Lieder player with great singers. The fortepiano re-appeared, and the HIP movement began.

    Through it all Brendel stayed his course, honoring the tradition of Edwin Fischer, who taught him and Badura-Skoda. Today he is 90, retired from the concert stage but not the lecturer’s platform, , still living the life of the mind. All honor to him, joy, health, and length of days. He has earned them, and kept the faith.

    • henry williams says:

      i heard in the early 60s anda playing bartok with
      fricsay and the london philharmonic. one of the best
      pianists i have ever seen.

      • Edgar Self says:

        Geza Anda’s records are still admired and often mentioned, Henry Williams, especially the Bartok you recall, and Beethoven’s triple concerto with his fellow Hungarian, Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Orchestra, which even at the time many preferred to Karajan’s with Richter, David Oistrakh, and Rostroopovich.

  • Gustavo says:

    Will Decca be reissuing the 114 CD complete box set?

    Does anyone know?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg, re your post above about Brendel’s saying he wished someone could tell him why the records his teacher Edwin Fischer and Alfred Cortot made in the 1930s sound better to him than his own. Your sonic explanation is perfectly possible, and may be a part of the anwer. But I think he is publicly admitting that their kind of imaginative, richly tonal and emotional, even visionary playing in’t one of his own strengths. All the more remarkable that he has written this. He has also written that their playing uniquely satisfies his intellect and emotion. Very revealing, I think.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      “But I think (Brendel) is publicly admitting that their kind of imaginative, richly tonal and emotional, even visionary playing isn’t one of his own strengths.”
      You are absolutely correct, mio amico, as was Brendel.
      I have always preferred the playing of Fischer and, especially, Cortot, to Brendel’s, which is dry, by-the-book, and academic, especially later in his career.
      (Brendel’s early Liszt on VOX was not bad – a far cry from Cziffra, but not bad.)