Pianist  Alfred  Brendel

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As life relentlessly goes on, regular concert-goers know that performers will eventually stop being part of their seasons.  We learn to expect this, but some retirements are harder to envision than others.  In December of 2008, Alfred Brendel will give his final concert before the public.  We will, of course, have a large pile of recordings to relive, but somehow the thought of having no more concerts from him just does not seem right.

For many years, he has spoiled us with solo and concerto performances of beauty and intelligence.  He has taken us along as he re-thought works, and each new rendering has given us a better picture of the mind of both composer and player.  More details can be found in the biography from his management at the end of this interview, and he also has a website with all the expected information. 

Being a great city, Chicago is a place that pianists like to visit for both concertos with our orchestra and solo recitals for our public, and Brendel has given us many afternoons and evenings of enjoyment and enlightenment.  It was on one of those trips that I had the pleasure of sitting down with him for a chat.  Though he was very busy
as he always ishe agreed to speak with me for a few minutes while he was practicing for a solo recital at Orchestra Hall in the spring of 1991.  The room where we met was the musicians lounge in the basement, and it had several chess-tables for the members of the Chicago Symphony to use during their down-time.  I asked the pianist if he played this intriguing game and was a bit surprised when he said that he didn’t.....

Bruce Duffie:    You don’t play chess?  What do you do when you are not playing piano?

Alfred Brendel:    I have many interests.  I write.  I have always been a visual person.  I don’t paint anymore, which I have done in my teens, extensively.  But I look.  I have a family; I have friends.  I want to talk to people outside my profession.  So there is a lot to do.

BD:    Specifically outside the profession?

AB:    I meet enough musicians in my life, so when I am at home in London I see mainly literary people, philosophers, and others.

BD:    Does getting away from music make the music better when you come back to it?

AB:    I am certainly somebody who needs that kind of life.  I could not bear the thought that music gulps me up completely.  I have the illusion — although maybe it’s more than an illusion — that I do what I do out of choice.

BD:    So you are not a slave to the instrument?

AB:    [Laughs] I hope not.

BD:    Do you ever feel that you have perhaps too many concerts, or too many recordings, and so you purposely cut back?

AB:    I have always tried to get a good balance, to get the balance right between how much I should play and how much I should be available to my family, and to my various interests.  The solution is not too bad.  It’s no always easy, you know.  It’s sometimes a battle between me and my wife and my agent, but we manage!

BD:    I assume that you could fill six hundred dates a year if you accepted all of the offers.  How do you decide which dates you’ll accept and which dates you’ll pass on?

BrendelAB:    Long ago I decided
that was in ’63that I can’t do everything, so I haven’t gone back to Latin America.  I had decided quite a few years ago that four tours in Australia were enough and that I shall skip this very distant island, as well as New Zealand.  I’m going to Japan about every third year, and to Israel.  I keep in touch with certain European capitals, and certain American cities.  As my availability in the United States is very limited, it is very hard sometimes to know what to do.  That is how to keep in touch with the great orchestras, for instance.  But last year, I had made an entirely orchestral tour, for once.  I was with all the great orchestras except Chicago.

BD:    And you’ll catch us again next season?

AB:    That’s right!

BD:    How do you divide your career between orchestral appearances and solo recitals?

AB:    It depends very much on what I’m doing, and what my projects are.  I had a lot of Brahms Concertos in the fall, and now I have mainly solo recitals for the moment.  But then in the autumn, I do again the Beethoven cycle with Simon Rattle in England.

BD:    Oh, the five Concerti?

AB:    Yes.  And in the next two seasons I have a cycle of piano concertos with the London Philharmonia, from Bach to Schoenberg, besides starting the Beethoven Sonatas again.  I wanted to go into that matter once more and with a lot of leisure, so I spread them over three seasons.  I want to restudy all the pieces and see what happens.

BD:    Do you start with clean scores?

AB:    I try to, yes.  I try, really, to forget everything, or put anything into question, and then come to a new result.  It may resemble the old, or it may not.  [Both laugh]

BD:    In other words, if you come to the same conclusions it will resemble the old?

AB:    Then it has shown me that I’ve done something right in the past.  It may be gratifying, or at least it will give me that illusion.  You see, I’m a skeptic.

BD:    Completely?

AB:    Basically.  Maybe not completely, but basically.

BD:    You say you try to forget everything.  When you are working on the Beethoven Sonatas, do you also try to forget all of the Bach and Schubert and Schoenberg and everything else that you’ve studied in order to come just to Beethoven alone?

AB:    Not really.  The older I get, hopefully the more clearly I can understand in the context what musical history is about:  how music proceeded, how one composer did something new that composers before had not done before, for instance.  Or how one composer used things in his own way that the composers did before, or combined matters that have never been combined before — that kind of thing.  I’m very interested to find out what was new at a certain time, and how certain harmonies maybe struck the people at that time, and not necessarily at our time.  

BD:    Well, is it right to play Beethoven and think of ears that have not gone through a couple of World Wars and Depressions and all of this progress?

AB:    Certainly not!  I am a person of the twentieth century.  I play in modern halls and I have decided to play on modern instruments, though I am very interested in the historic ones.  But you have to do several things at the same time when you are a performer.  When you play on stage, you have to forget yourself and control yourself at the same time.

BD:    That sounds like it would create schizophrenia.

AB:    Oh, absolutely!  It is the behavior of a split personality.  And if I may mention a third activity:  you have to consider what the person hears in the twentieth row.

BD:    Does that change if you have a small hall with only twenty rows, or a big hall with a hundred and fifty rows?

AB:    It may change my basic outlook, but then of course one always has to try to listen in to the hall and see how it sounds.  Sometimes this is really divining! [Both laugh]

BD:    I would think that you, at the keyboard, would be in almost the worst place to hear the acoustics of the hall.

AB:    There are halls where the difference is not very large.  For instance, the Vienna Musikverein is a very good place to judge your own sound in connection with listeners.  And there are other places where the difference may be totally misleading, and where certain people in certain parts of the hall hear different things.  This is the case with virtually all very large halls.

BD:    Is there anything you, as the artist, can do to compensate for this, or do you just have to present the artistry and hope that everyone will hear as best they can in whatever seat they have purchased?

AB:    The latter, yes, yes.  I try to play with conviction, and I try to satisfy myself, which is very difficult.

BD:    Are you ever satisfied?

AB:    [Laughs] Sometimes for the moment, but it doesn’t last very long.

BD:    Does it last ‘til the next satisfaction?

AB:    If I have the possibility to check what I have done, I may have things to rethink.  But there always are sometimes pleasant surprises.

BD:    Is there any possibility that you can over-analyze and overindulge yourself in the thinking about a piece of music, and lose whatever spontaneity there is within the creativity?

AB:    There is the possibility to over-analyze, and there is the possibility to over-emphasize meaning to be too direct, relying too much on your wonderful personal feelings.  On the whole, I think this is the greater danger.  There should be a fusion of the two.  One should, particularly when one gets older, get aware of certain things within the composition, but always in connection with the emotions, and always starting new processes, never relying that what one has found out is the gospel.

BD:    There’s the skeptic again.  [Both laugh]  Then how much of what you play is Beethoven or Schubert or Liszt, and how much is Brendel?

AB:    You would have to construct a new machine to measure this.  This is really not my first concern.  I try never to forget that the composer is there first, that without the composer I would not be on stage at all, that one has to serve the composer as best as one can.  But it means not to be just totally literal, but to bring a piece to life, and to bring it to life before our present-day ears, for our present-day conditions.  So it is not possible, what I felt was sometimes done in the fifties and early sixties, to try to switch off your own personality and expect the ghost of the composer coming down directly from heaven if you do.

BD:    You’ve abandoned this?

AB:    I have never done it.  I was always opposed to it, but I felt that at that time there were quite a few people who subscribed to it.

BD:    There are recordings which exist from early in your career, and recordings which you are now making of the same music.  Do you disown the old recordings, as far as artistic interpretation?

CD set2AB:    I’m very far from remembering all of them, and as far as my offspring goes, I’m sometimes glad if it leaves me and they lead their own lives! [Laughs]  I would have to listen again to all those records and then give you an account of what I like and what I dislike.  There may be some old recordings, at least some movements, which I still like or which I find convincing in their own terms.  And there may be some recent recordings that I dislike.

BD:    Is it, then, a mistake for someone to come to you and say, “I’ve studied your earlier recording of this and your middle recording of this and your later recording of this, and in the first recording you did such and such at this bar, and in the later recording you did thus and so at that bar?”

AB:    It depends what use the listener can make of such information.  If it becomes a sort of sterile passion, then I’m all against it.  But if the listener is still able to see things as a greater unit, listen to a whole movement, a whole piece, and see how the detail fits in the whole, whether it makes sense in the whole, then it’s fine.  I try to do that all the time.  When I question my playing, I listen and say, “Well, there is something that’s not quite wrong here.  What did I do?  Did I overemphasize something?  Did I underemphasize?  Did I do the right thing, but not in the right measure?”  There are many possibilities.  There are sometimes minute corrections that make an enormous difference. 

BD:    It seems that the newer composers are putting more and more indications in the score as to exactly what you should do where and when.  Do you find this more confining or less confining?

AB:    There are various degrees of precision within the notation.  Already when you take Mozart’s solo works, some of them are very thoroughly marked.  In fact, most of my colleagues leave out some of those markings, because they think it doesn’t fit the music.

BD:    Are these markings Mozart’s?

AB:    Mozart’s!  Mozart’s.

BD:    They’re not by later editors or someone else

AB:    No, not at all.  But they are very extreme in some cases, and they show that he performed with great emphasis of detail.  Whereas there are some other pieces, like the big F Major Sonata, which has almost no markings, no dynamic markings at all, and where it needs a performer who knows Mozart’s works very well
particularly the chamber music works and orchestral works, and maybe some operato decide what one should do with it.

BD:    Would it be good, then, for a young pianist to start with the works which are more marked up and then go to the ones that are have fewer indications in the score?

AB:    I would say as regards to Mozart, that a young performer should do well to play a lot of concertos first and then go and play the solo repertory, or get back to some pieces that he has learned too soon.  In the solo works, everything is much more exposed; every note counts to a degree which is very rare in music.  So they are much harder to perform than almost anything.

BD:    The orchestra can cover up little mistakes or little un-understandings?

AB:    Also the orchestra gives the player quite a few clues what he should do.  The piano and the orchestra share quite a lot of material usually.  And even if the piano concertos are not dynamically marked, or very rarely, it is much easier in the context to do things which are not ludicrous! [Both laugh]

BD:    You have twenty-seven concerti of Mozart to work with.  If you’re going to do a whole cycle, you obviously must do all of them.  Are there a few that you’ve come to reluctantly, but you feel you must do just to finish the cycle?

AB:    Yes.  I left a few when I did my recordings.  First I didn’t want to do them at all, and then I reconsidered, and said, “There must be something wrong with me because there should be enough interest in these pieces for me to deal with.”  I’m still doubtful about the earlier concertos before K. 271, the Jeunehomme Concerto, which is the first very great masterpiece and not really surpassed later.  There are a few works in between, even some parts of the Coronation Concerto, that are not the best Mozart, I would say.

BD:    But even
not the best Mozart is superlative music, is it not?

AB:    It usually is, yes.  Yes, of course.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me pursue this just a little bit.  What are some of the traits that go into making a piece of music a masterwork?

BrendelAB:    Well, to answer this question you should have studied composition yourself and composed enough to be able to look at other works that you deal with from a composer’s point of view.  This is a suggestion to all younger performers that I meet, if they ask me what they should do.  The first question is:  do you compose?  Do you have a good understanding of composition?  Did you put pieces together yourself?  It helps to just get at least the first degree of feeling to know how a piece hangs together and why it hangs to together; then gradually, in dealing with masterpieces, to find out why certain pieces are different from others, and how masterworks of the same composer are different.  They wouldn’t be masterworks otherwise.  They contribute something that the composer has not done elsewhere.  To characterize them, to find out this difference, is one of the wonderful tasks of the performer — not to have a stereotyped approach to what the composer has done, but within the very large world of a great composer, to define those pieces.  And it is easier to define them if you play cycles, because you have them next to one another.  You try, as in a much-performed work of variations, to set the variations apart from one another.

BD:    But a set of variations has all the variations within it, so is a cycle of works like a set of variations on the composer?

AB:    Well, as far as the variety of the pieces goes, if you play a large cycle of variations, you still have to have an overview and give the kind of large breadth of the cycle.  If I play the Symphonic Etudes, for instance, then there is an enormous drive over the whole work.  Or, there is a wonderful arch over pieces like Beethoven’s Eroica Variations or the Diabelli Variations.  On the other hand, the F Major Variations, Opus 34, that I have played here, are all separated.  They are in different meters and different tempi and in different keys, and that is something you need.  There is no other work where that has been done before or after.  So they really stand apart.

BD:    Could someone juggle them around and put them in a different order?

AB:    No, that is impossible.  But they stand apart in the way that one variation does not grow out from the other.  They are separated by little pauses.  They are, of course, organized — Beethoven would not be Beethoven if they did not — in the way that they are in the same distance of keys, always one-third apart until the last but one, which leads to the finale in the fifth.

BD:    You could say he’s created a cycle of thirds rather than a cycle of fifths.

AB:    Yes.

BD:    When you look at the thirty-two sonatas, does that form an integrated cycle?

AB:    Integrated in the way that each work is different.  Each work counts.  Even the small sonatas, I think, are finished masterpieces.  Therefore, it is one of the few cycles that is worth playing as a cycle.  If you would play all the Haydn Sonatas, or even all the Mozart Sonatas, it is not the same level of general achievement.  Though, for instance, I’m very far from underrating both Mozart’s and Haydn’s Sonatas.  There are some absolutely tremendous pieces there.  But with Haydn, you have to make a choice.  If I will ever do a little Haydn cycle, that would be two recitals! [Laughs]

BD:    I see.  We’ve kind of been dancing around this, so let me ask the question straight out:  What is the purpose of music?

AB:    That I cannot answer; I’m sorry.  Maybe ask me again in ten years! [Both laugh]

BD:    All right, I’ll put that in my book!  Let me change it a little bit to see if we can come up with a partial answer.  Why do you perform music?

AB:    Because I thought when I was eighteen or nineteen that I had potential as a musician, that it’s worth exploring, that it would be a matter of a lifetime, if I’m lucky, to develop these possibilities, and it would be interesting to see what comes out.  Also, of course, my love of sounds, of connections of sounds, connections that made sense or that overwhelmed me in certain other ways; my admiration and respect for the great composers, and sometimes my sympathy for some lesser composers.

BD:    So it’s been more than forty years that you’ve been dealing with this.  Are you pleased with the progress that you have made in that time?

AB:    It’s difficult to give you an answer.  On the whole, I think I have not wasted my time.  I think I have developed and I think my public has noticed it!  I do not regret what I have done.  There is always, maybe, the possibility to have done it better, but I hope to continue for a few years and see what is still there to be brought out, and to be added, and to be filtered.  This is also a matter of getting older — to find out what is more and less important, to sift through one’s musical experience and discard what is not of primary importance or primary quality, and try to keep the rest, and keep it together.

BD:    Perhaps some things that are not of primary quality now were of primary quality earlier?

AB:    Well, I would be in a sorry state if I would not have a somewhat clearer picture of what performance is about than I had twenty years ago! [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you now where you expected to be when you arrived at sixty?

AB:    I did not devise my future in such precise terms.  When I was twenty, I had a certain vision of what one could achieve, what I might achieve when I’m fifty, and I think, more or less, this has come about.  Now, after fifty, I am not particularly adamant to know exactly what will happen.  I improvise.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How much of the work of preparing each score is done in the practice room, and how much is left for the inspiration of the evening’s concert?

AB:    I think one should be very well prepared, but one should know the limits within which a certain work makes sense.  A work is like a character in a drama, or sometimes like the interaction of several characters in a drama.  This character, or these characters, only make sense within their possibilities.  If you step out of these possibilities, then it gets to be nonsense.  Now, within these possibilities there’s quite a bit of leeway, with some works much more than with others.  There are also works where you have to hit exactly one nerve to make them sound convincing.  I have an old lady friend, a very old lady, who has heard many of my concerts and who usually comes to me after the concert.  She’s a very good musician and a very astute person, and she says, “You’ve played everything differently today!” [Laughs]

BrendelBD:    Does that please you, or merely amuse you?

AB:    Both, both!

BD:    Is this one of the qualities that sets a work apart as being great, that it can be played in different ways?

AB:    I suppose that great masterpieces are more complex by definition, that you can look into them from various angles, also at various times and various periods of musical development, and see a logical line.  But it doesn’t mean that everybody can do anything!

BD:    You have to have a starting point?

AB:    Well, a starting point — more than a starting point, really an awareness of what the basis of a piece is, and not only what the construction is like, but particularly what the emotional context is like.  Where are the characters?  Where does the atmosphere change?  How does the whole movement function as an emotional entity?  This sort of oversight is also a kind of talent.  You may have it, you may also develop it, but some people never get it.

BD:    Is this what differentiates between the great performers and the lesser performers?

AB:    I would think so.  It’s one of the things, at least, yes.

BD:    What are some of the other things?

AB:    Honesty; the feeling for emotional quality, which means that there is a difference between emotions of the first order and emotions that are second or third-hand; sentimentality
gush.  [Both laugh]  Also, something that has already been written about:  saying that some people want everything overemphasized because they do not know that the true feeling has its own order, and that sometimes the finest feeling has the greatest effect if it is almost concealed.

BD:    Ah, subtlety. 

AB:    Yes.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who would like to write music for the piano these days?

AB:    To do something which has not been done before. [Laughs] When I see a good piano piece, I don’t want to hear a repetition of something.  As I told you, I’m always looking out for something that has not been done before.  It is the first criteria of a piece that is worthwhile. It is not wrong sometimes to go back to older styles, but you have to do something new with them.

BD:    You’re not looking for novelty for novelty’s sake, though?

AB:    I am convinced that novelty is one of the best criteria to see whether a piece is worthwhile or not, and I have gained this conviction in dealing with the repertory between Bach and Schoenberg; looking at the pieces and trying to see how they fitted into their time, and what they have done to change the course of music or to add something to it.

BD:    Is the same is not true of performances of the music:  novelty for novelty’s sake?

AB:    Absolutely not!  A performance is not a creation, or only in a very limited sense.  If a composer hates his father, metaphorically speaking, then he is in the right position, even if he tries to learn from him.  If a performer hates his father, he should change his profession.

BD:    What about audiences?  Do you have advice for the typical or even the sophisticated audience that comes to hear your performance?

AB:    My first advice is to concentrate and be silent.  There are, unfortunately, too many people these days who are used to sitting in front of the television set, and used to one-way traffic — something comes out and nothing goes in.  There has been more noise lately, in audiences, than even before.  I have heard people not only cough, but also sneeze loudly, for instance.  I heard digital watches and hearing aids going off, and even tennis shoes squeaking.  I have some of that on tape at home!  So I can only implore the public to realize that the silence, the concentration of the public, is part of the performance that it really enhances the performance.  By being silent, the audience participates in a good performance, not by contributing noises.

BD:    Do you feel that if you have a completely silent performance, that you, perhaps, have succeeded better than where there were tennis shoes and alarm watches?

AB:    Not necessarily.  It would be too easy to explain it that way and it would excuse too many people who simply don’t know at all what a performance is about, and why they sit there and wait for the softest beat to do their cough.  If there are two or three people like that in the audience, then it can really be a big hindrance to everybody, and it is not always your own personal magnetism that can avoid it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

AB:    I am a pessimist generally.  The world is not in a very good state.  If I am optimistic about anything, then it is about the future of the arts!

BrendelBD:    How can you play Mozart all the time and not be an optimist?

AB:    I’m not sure Mozart was an optimist himself.

BD:    But isn’t his music the embodiment of divine optimism?

AB:    No, I cannot share this view.  His music would be very one-sided and rather narrow in its possibilities if it could only express that.  Mozart could be deeply pessimistic.  His works in minor keys are some of the most desolate soliloquies that I know in music.  Mozart had all these dimensions and I think it would mean to simplify him if one put him into one drawer
like it would simplify any great composer.

BD:    You say you go from Bach to Schoenberg.  Have you found nothing post-Schoenberg that interests you?

AB:    Oh, I have a lot of interest in new works, but I don’t play them because it would mean specializing on a few pieces while I could otherwise maintain a large older repertory.  But I do go and listen, and I try to know the composers.  And I try to get some sort of feedback from my encounter of new music.

BD:    If someone writes a piece of music for you, will you not even consider playing it?

AB:    I would consider it, but I’m not sure if I would play it in the end — not because I wouldn’t like the piece, but because I would think that there maybe somebody else who could do it better.

BD:    Your performances always have to be the best?

AB:    Not de facto, but at least one should try to make them the best within your own possibilities.

BD:    Are you still expanding your repertoire in the time between Bach and Schoenberg with new pieces or new composers from within that era?

AB:    I try to, yes.

BD:    How do you decide, then, which you’ll add, and which you won’t?

AB:    Oh, there has been a waiting list of pieces! [Both laugh]

BD:    Is it a very short list, or is it as long as your arm?

AB:    It is too long for me to still master it.  But I also want to keep in touch with the important works that I’ve played before, and go back to them at least in certain intervals.  I’m not one of the pianists who will learn a piece, think that one has mastered it, and put it into the wastepaper basket.  This is one type of performer.  There is another type who are obsessively repeating the pieces that they have played.  That’s also not my way.

BD:    You try to hit the middle?

AB:    [Laughs] I try!

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago, and thank you for spending a little time with me.  I appreciate it very much.

AB:    My pleasure.  Sorry we don’t have hours, but I have to go back to the instrument.  The tuner will be there as well.  [Though not at this particular engagement, much insight can be found in my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons 1968-1992,]

Now celebrating his 60th year of performing before the public, Alfred Brendel is recognized by audiences the world over for his legendary ability to communicate the emotional and intellectual depths of whatever music he performs. A supreme master of his art, his accomplishments as an interpreter of the great composers have earned him a place among the world's most revered musicians.

BrendelHaving spent the earlier part of this season in the concert halls of Vienna, Berlin, London, Budapest, and other musical capitals of Europe, Mr. Brendel appears on his annual North American tour, performing Mozart K.491 with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony, with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, and with Stéphane Denève and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He appears in recital at Carnegie Hall, for the Celebrity Series of Boston, with Chicago Symphony Presents and at the Washington Performing Arts Society.

Mr. Brendel has performed with virtually all leading orchestras and conductors. He has appeared in the major cultural centers of Europe and the Far East, and his annual tours of North America have taken him from coast to coast. In recent seasons Mr. Brendel has performed with the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony with Daniel Barenboim conducting, the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the inaugural season of the new Disney Hall. He is an annual visitor to Carnegie Hall, where in 1983 he became the first pianist since the legendary Artur Schnabel to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas. At Carnegie Hall in 1999, he appeared six times in just over three weeks to delight audiences with recitals, chamber music, lieder with baritone Matthias Goerne, poetry reading, and a Mozart concerto with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Mr. Brendel's performance at Carnegie Hall the year before - on April 26, 1998 - marked the exact anniversary of his first public recital fifty years ago at the Kammermusiksaal in Graz, Austria. The same series of celebratory events took place later that year at the Lucerne Festival. Strongly identified for his performances of Mozart, Mr. Brendel marked the composer's 250th birth anniversary on January 27, 2006 with a special performance of Mozart's final piano concerto, K.595, with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle at Carnegie Hall, which they performed together thereafter with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Alfred Brendel is one of the most prolific recording artists of all time, and for the past thirty years has recorded exclusively for Philips Classics. He is the first pianist to have recorded all of Beethoven's piano compositions and one of the few to have recorded the complete Mozart piano concertos. An extensive discography includes "The Art of Alfred Brendel," a deluxe limited-edition collection of his comprehensive and varied repertoire. His recent releases include a live recording of Schubert sonatas; the five Beethoven piano concertos with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic (the fourth time Mr. Brendel has committed these works to disc); Mozart Concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Charles Mackerras; works by Haydn, Schubert and Liszt recorded live in Salzburg; and a series of discs devoted to the complete sonatas and other solo works of Mozart. Also recently released is a recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello with his son, cellist Adrian Brendel. He has won many prizes for his recordings, notably the Grand Prix du Disque, the Japan Record Academy Award, Gramophone's "Critics' Choice," the Edison Prize, and the Grand Prix de l'Académie du Disque Français. In 2001, Mr. Brendel received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Cannes at MIDEM, the world's largest recording industry's fair.

BrendelMr. Brendel is well versed in the fields of literature, language, architecture and films. In addition to his latest books, Alfred Brendel on Music and Ausgerechnet Ich ("Me Of All People"), he has published two collections of articles, lectures and essays. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, having written articles on Mozart, Liszt and Schoenberg. Mr. Brendel's volumes of poetry – "A collection of texts which can be numbered among the sparse ranks of genuinely comic literature and which make their author possibly ‘immortal.'" (Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung,) include One Finger Too Many, published in the United States by Random House, and Cursing Bagels, released in English by Faber and Faber. He has given readings of his works in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and in many of the cultural capitals of Europe. Mr. Brendel is the subject of the BBC documentary "Alfred Brendel - Man and Mask."

Born in Weissenberg, Moravia, Alfred Brendel spent his childhood traveling throughout Yugoslavia and Austria. His father, an architectural engineer, businessman and cinema director, also ran a resort hotel on the Adriatic. The younger Brendel began piano lessons at the age of six but, owing to the family's continuous travel, had to give up one piano teacher after another. In his teens, he attended the Graz Conservatory where he studied piano, composition and conducting. He also showed talent as a painter and, when he made his recital debut at the age of 17, an art gallery near the concert hall was showing a one-man exhibition of his watercolors.

He discontinued formal piano studies soon after, preferring to attend occasional master classes, including those given by the famed pianist Edwin Fischer. To this day Mr. Brendel regards his untraditional musical background as something of an advantage. "Many times a teacher can be too influential," he says. "Being self-taught, I learned to distrust anything I hadn't figured out myself." Although Mr. Brendel's artistic interests as a young man did not focus on music alone, his winning the prestigious Busoni Piano Competition in Italy launched his career as a performing musician. He quickly established a reputation of unusual integrity and insight into the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert, as well as the works of Liszt and several 20th century composers.

Alfred Brendel is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Oxford, London, Sussex and Yale universities. He is only the third pianist in history to be named an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic, a distinction he shares with his illustrious predecessors, Emil von Sauer and Wilhelm Backhaus. Mr. Brendel has been awarded the Leonie Sonning Prize, the Furtwängler Prize for Musical Interpretation, London's South Bank Award, the Robert Schumann Prize presented in Zwickau, Schumann's birthplace; the Ernst von Siemens Prize and, most recently, "A Life for Music – the Artur Rubinstein Prize," presented by the Artur Rubinstein Cultural Association of Venice, Italy. In 1989 he was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for "Outstanding Services to Music in Britain," where he has made his home since 1972.

(Biography from Colbert Artists Management, Inc., January 2008)

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the musicians’ lounge in the basement of Orchestra Hall in Chicago on April 20, 1991.  Portions were used on WNIB (along with musical examples) in 1996 and 1999.  The transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in November of that year. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.