Alfred Brendel: a pianist dedicated to his music
New York — It is a great temptation to typecast a person by looks.
In the case of pianist Alfred Brendel, one's first impression upon seeing this tall, severely intense-looking fellow certainly is not one of a gentle giant. Nor does his face, often locked into perplexed amazement, indicate anything about his musicianship -- the way, say, Arthur Schnabel's appearance clued us into his dedicated, humane brand of recorded performance.
In Brendel's playing can be heard an overwhelming -- occasionally overbearing -- dedication to the music at hand, and an eschewing of the merely decorative in his technical manner. At times, his playing can be so serious, so deeply analytical, as to sound like an involved dissertation from the keyboard.
At other times, his musicmaking telegraphs urgency, a compelling vitality. At one extreme, I once heard him in a Mozart concerto (No. 9) with the Boston Symphony that was dry to the nth degree -- the season after he had treated his Symphony Hall audience to a profoundly moving perusal of the three last Schubert opus posthumous sonatas.
Mr. Brendel is also an author of no small ability. His most recent book -- ''Thoughts and Afterthoughts'' -- should be required reading for anyone to whom ethics and the intellectual preparations are important aspects of making music. As Mr. Brendel is at least as proficient with words as he is with a keyboard, the sheer readability is delightful, especially considering the involved, potentially dry nature of the topics discussed.
I talked with Mr. Brendel near the end of a recent American tour. On his Carnegie Hall and other recital programs he included works by Haydn and Liszt, the latter a composer always dear to him. In fact, in the 1950s Brendel championed Liszt -- as did other notables such as Wilhelm Kempff -- at a time when jeering Liszt was more favored than cheering.
''I'm surprised about this bias toward Liszt in this country,'' he observes. Much of it comes from Wagner biographer and renowned - even trend-setting - critic Ernest Newman, who wrote a biased biography of Liszt that has repercussions to this day.
''Most of what was written about 'le virtuose' was as a young man. The literature does not take into account his later life,'' Brendel continues. He cites the book by Amy Fay on her years of study abroad. Her observations of all the great pianists of her day remain an accurate and vital link with a world of performing geniuses and talents that predated the invention of the gramophone.
Liszt the virtuoso is discussed, but more importantly, so is Liszt the profound interpreter. As Brendel states: ''The range of what he could perform would be heard in his music. He was not popular as a composer even then except for a few friends and aficionados.
''I see him as a piano composer. Then one has to make a selection of his best work. There are between 70 and 100 which I would defend. Liszt from the beginning was also an orchestral pianist. His best piano works are reductions for one player of many ideas.''
On Brendel's newest record (Philips 9500 775), devoted to Liszt's later piano works -- and boasting some thoughtful Brendel program notes -- one can hear this orchestral approach fully realized. Brendel waxes as colorful a tonal master as he ever has on records. Even his model accounts of the mightily flagellated and abused Piano Concertos (Philips 6500 374) do not reveal a Brendel so acutely aware of the dynamic range and the astonishing variety of tone and texture as is to be heard in this album. In a selection like ''Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este'' Brendel is without comparison.
His first wave of fame as a recording artist (and, in this country, as a musician) came from his association with Vox records -- a complete Beethoven sonata cycle, the Five Concertos, various other Beethoven, Liszt, and other composers. Now that Philips has ''gotten a hold'' of him, he has re-recorded the Beethoven Sonatas and concertos, and a good deal of Schubert, Mozart (including many of the concertos, with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field) and now, Liszt, Schumann, and Haydn.
Though he is rarely satisfied with anything he has done on records, he has only once actually vetoed the release of a performance -- of the Beethoven ''Eroica'' variations. ''It didn't sound like myself,'' he says dismissively.
What records do sound like ''himself''? He cites some of the early Beethoven and Mozart woodwind quintets. But at the same time he says ''It is not always possible to know exactly what a record is like. It needs more time to see it with different eyes.'' Implicit in that is the almost universal statement among today's great artists that they do not enjoy listening to their own records.
He was once a concertgoer and record listener, though he always got the greatest pleasure from records made in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. ''I am grateful for the 78s of Cortot, Fischer (a major influence in his artistic life) Schnabel , Lotte Lehmann, Adolf Busch, Bronislaw Huberman. I have my reservations about my own records, however.
''There is something strange about the fact that a performance, put on disk, doesn't change any more.'' Doesn't that lead to a public used to an impossible standard because of records? ''As long as the public comes and listens, they have a corrective. You can listen to live performances and make comparisons.''
Does he listen to musicians other than pianists?
Singers, mostly, because ''singing is the basis of music, even when it turns against singing.'' In the '50s he was a regular at the Vienna Staatsoper, which in his opinion had perhaps the Mozart ensemble of our day.
''On the whole I would have to say I have benefited more from singers and conductors than from pianists.'' As to teachers, he had them in Zagreb and in Graz, then, after he was 16, he was on his own, a few master classes excepted. Does he teach?
''Never on a regular basis. I did teach a few master classes, but I have stopped completely. I enjoy playing. I have a family, three children, and I try to write. . . .''
Brendel tries to keep his summers free. He devotes his concert season basically to half solo recitals, half orchestral appearances ''except when I concentrate on a Beethoven sonata cycle as I will in '82-'83. Then I will do almost no orchestral work.''
Does he ever refer to period instruments for insights into what the composer heard? Does he foresee the day he might perform Mozart and Beethoven on a fortepiano or Liszt on an Erard (the French builder of innovative harps and pianos in the 18th and 19th centuries)? ''This practice would fall flat on account of our halls. Old instruments do not fit into (our spaces). They need a different hall -- be it baroque, a palais, a Viennese salon, etc. I have tried (these old instruments). It has provided some valuable insights. But with the exceptions of a few like Scarlatti or Couperin -- which I can really only listen to on period instruments -- I do not really think each work is tailored to a specific instrument.''
He recounts how Bach transcribed into all mediums. ''It depends on the perspective you see piano music in. . . . As I see (that perspective) it is written by instrumental composers who have written for other mediums as well.'' In discussing Bach, Brendel feels strongly that cantabile is best effected on a piano, possibly on an organ if the musician is clever, but definitely not on a harpsichord.
Brendel is currently undertaking his own Haydn revival. ''It is a project dear to my heart. The great pianists have neglected him -- even Schnabel. There was a strong prejudice -- or lack of understanding -- for Haydn in the 19th century.'' As for contemporary music, Brendel says ''I do not have the necessary facility of reading and memorizing which would allow me to play it. I would have to specialize in it and I decided not to do this.''
Brendel will be doing more recordings of Haydn and Schumann and hopes to do more writing, something he finds helps his ability to better understand music. ''Analysis is part of writing. As I get older, I get aware of more of the intellectual proceedings. I am curious to find out how the mind of the composer works.''
Parenthetically he observes, ''It is not important whether the composer knew what he was doing, but what the edifice turned out to be like.
''I find it is a matter of experience and familiarity to find out (the inner workings). It does not stop, this feeling strongly and freshly about the pieces.''
It is this probing intellectual pursuit that makes the best of Brendel so convincing. His best is to be heard in the new Liszt record, and the Liszt concerto record (with a fine ''Totentanz'' thrown in). Most of the Mozart concerto records are models of their kind. The recent rematching of the ''Appassionata,'' ''Moonlight,'' and ''Pathetique'' sonatas (Philips 9500 899) is a handsome sample of his entire Beethoven sonata cycle. The first in a projected cycle of Haydn sonatas (9500 774) whets one's appetite, so alive and imaginative is his playing.
Brendel the chamber player can be handsomely sampled in the Schubert ''Trout'' quintet (9500 442) with the Cleveland Quartet. All of the above (and I would also include at least the ''Emperor'' concerto (9500 243) from the cycle with Bernard Haitink) are recommended samples of one leading exponent of the central European repertoire today.
Brendel will finish up his latest tour with two appear-ances in Carnegie Hall; tonight with the Cincinnati Symph-ony Orchestra and Thursday in a solo performance. He then goes to Boston for a recital in Symphony Hall on Feb. 28.