Alfred Brendel at Orchestra Hall

By Bruce Duffie

This Sunday afternoon at 3 PM, one of the great pianists of the world will again bring his artistry and imagination to Orchestra Hall.  Alfred Brendel, who is not only a keyboard virtuoso but also a deep thinker on many topics, will give us his current ideas about Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

It is not just flippant to say ‘current ideas' because Brendel makes a point of selecting his repertoire carefully, and then re-working some of the pieces at different points in his career.  He presents his thoughts and gives us his views, then, after time and reconsideration, returns to them and starts again with the entire process. "I try to forget everything, or put anything into question," he told me a few years ago. Then he arrives at a new result.  "It may resemble the old or may not.  If it does," he continues, "then it shows me that I've done something right in the past... or at least it will give me that illusion.  You see, I'm a skeptic."

This questioning of everything has made Brendel's performances and recordings special.  We know that every note has been looked at and every nuance considered.  "The older I get, the more clearly I see the composers in a context of what musical history is about and how it proceeded."  He is very interested to find out what was new at a certain time.  He wants to find out, "How composers did new things, or how they used things from before in their own way, or made new combinations of ideas."  This way, he learns, "how certain harmonies struck people at that time, and not necessarily at our time."

Being a musician, Brendel is, naturally, enveloped with sound.  But, as he says, he's always been a visual person.  He painted extensively while in his teens, but doesn't any more.  He says, "I look."
Now, when not playing the piano, he wants to talk to people outside the profession.  "I meet enough musicians in my life," he says, "so when I'm at home in London, I see mainly literary people and philosophers." And he needs time to get away.  "I could not bear the thought that music gulps me up completely.  I harbor the illusion that I do what I do out of choice."

So how does he manage a demanding career?  "I decided long ago that I couldn't do everything.  I keep in touch with certain European capitals and certain American cities," so Chicago is lucky to have had his performances in the past and again this week.  Despite having performed and recorded the five Beethoven concertos with the Chicago Symphony, he says, "it is hard to keep in touch with the great American orchestras.  I have always tried to get the balance right between how much I should play and how much I should be available to my family and my various interests.  It's not always easy, and there's sometimes a battle between myself and my wife and my agent, but we manage."

When he does play, however, it's a complete entity unto itself.  "I try to play with conviction and try to satisfy myself, which is very difficult." Is he ever satisfied?  "Sometimes for the moment, but it doesn't last very long."

This week, Brendel brings three of the composers he has lived with and studied for much of his career - Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart.  About Wolfgang, he says, "Young performers should learn concertos first, then the solo works."  Why?  "In the solo works," he says, "everything is much more exposed.  Every note counts to a degree that is very rare in music."  When asked about too much study, he told me that there is a possibility of over-emphasis.

The Beethoven work on this program is the set of Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120.  Originally, Anton Diabelli asked a bunch of composers to each take his tune and do one variation in order to compile a set for publication.  Several did just that.  Beethoven, however, declined, but later took the almost-trite bit of 3/4 time and created his own monumental set of variations, which takes most of an hour to present.

These days, when we think of pianists and their styles, the question of which kind of instrument often comes up.  About this, Brendel is quite clear.  "I am person of the 20th century, so I play in modern halls and have decided to play on modern instruments, though I'm very interested in historic ones."  This simplifies things in one area, but leaves another to be settled.  "When you are a performer," he says, "you have to do several things at the same time.  When you play onstage, you have to forget yourself, yet control yourself."  Does this cause any  schizophrenia?  "Absolutely.  It is the behavior of a split personality."  And beyond just performing on different instruments each night, he must consider the performing venue.  "One has to listen to the hall and try to hear how it sounds."  He goes on, "at the same time, you have to consider what the person in the 20th row will hear." He uses the word ‘divining' to describe this feat.

He doesn't denegrate others' ideas, but did tell me that in the 50s and 60s, he was, "always opposed to the idea that you completely abandon your own personality and expect the ghost of the composer to come down from Heaven."  Knowing how much he works and studies each score, I asked him how much of each performance was the composer and how much was Alfred Brendel.  "You would have to construct a new machine to measure this," he replied, and said that was not his first concern.  "I try never to forget that the composer is there first. Without the composer I would not be onstage at all.  One has to serve the composer as best as one can without being just totally literal, but to bring a piece to life for our present day ears and conditions."

Between his appearances, listeners around the world can satisfy their thirst for Brendel's interpretations with his many recordings.  There's a good variety, and also some works he has re-made two or three times.  Asked about the older ones, he says, "I am far from remembering them, and I'm glad if they leave me and lead their own lives."  About the recording process, he says, "if it becomes a sterile passion, I'm against it.  But if the listener is still able to see things as a greater unit, and see how things fit into the whole, then it's fine.  I try to do that all the time."  He continues, "There are many possibilities.  Sometimes minute corrections make an enormous difference."

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Scheduled to run in CityTalk, April 13, 2001.
Dropped because of space limitations in that issue. 

To read my entire interview with Alfred Brendel, CLICK HERE