Don't broadcast the pianist

Alfred Brendel's illustrious Proms career will end at a concert next week. Fear of live transmissions has brought a glorious era to a close

Alfred Brendel bids farewell to the Proms: it sounds dramatic, but this is a drama that has long been brewing. The trigger is his fear of the mic: he can no longer bear the thought of a slip registering on radios throughout the land, and has announced that after next Tuesday he will never again do a live broadcast. He will go out as he came in, playing the work with which he began his orchestral career 56 years ago - Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. So is the emperor of the First Viennese School quitting while he's ahead?

Alfred Brendel bids farewell to the Proms: it sounds dramatic, but this is a drama that has long been brewing. The trigger is his fear of the mic: he can no longer bear the thought of a slip registering on radios throughout the land, and has announced that after next Tuesday he will never again do a live broadcast. He will go out as he came in, playing the work with which he began his orchestral career 56 years ago - Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. So is the emperor of the First Viennese School quitting while he's ahead?

Not exactly: something odd happened in a recital he recently gave at the Wigmore Hall with his cellist son Adrian. In between two Beethoven cello sonatas, Brendel père took the stage to play Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata, and actually began its rolling upward arpeggio in the wrong key. An extraordinary lapse, corrected in a split second, which no critic saw fit to mention, but which seemed significant, as did the sedate pace at which he proceeded to play the movement: there was no hint of the hurtling ferocity he brought to bear in this music on the LP I bought in the Sixties. But the concert as a whole was a success, with the tall, stooped father proudly nudging his taller, beefier son to receive applause. You might almost have thought he was passing the mantle.

Brendel is 73, and back trouble has long prevented him from playing the big stuff that was once his trademark - Beethoven's "Hammerklavier", Liszt's B minor sonata, the Brahms concertos. But he has in no way given up: his touring diary is full, if largely devoted to smaller-scale Mozart plus duo appearances with his son. But as another work in his valedictory Prom will indicate, his waning pianism is countered by the waxing of a new activity: Sir Harrison Birtwistle will unveil settings of three of Brendel's surreal poems. This marks a sea-change in the career of a man who's even more complex than he looks.

To meet him, you'd say a psychoanalyst, with his hesitant rigour, his pristine Viennese tones, and his face of a sad clown. In the dining room of his massive Hampstead house hangs a picture of a Bosch-style devil torturing damned souls, while the book-lined study in which he works - "Church - no entrance", says the plaque on the door - is dominated by a series of masks and effigies, including one from Papua, and a three-dimensional caricature of himself as a Sphinx. "These are what I look at as I'm playing," he remarks. "They keep me in touch with reality." Not a dark or depressive reality, he adds. "But I have always valued the grotesque - fantasy figures, mythological creatures, things that by moving out of the ordinary give one a better sense of the ordinary, an awareness that the world is absurd.

"That is the basic truth about life, for me. Seeing the Nazis on the streets, hearing their broadcasts on the radio, and becoming aware of the great void left by the Holocaust - all that was an important part of my education. I did not understand everything, but I stored what was said; I only made use of it later. It inoculated me against fanaticism and belief. I began to understand that the world is absurd, which is a valuable perception, now that it grows more absurd each day."

Brendel was born in Moravia in 1931, where his introduction to music was unorthodox: "Operating a wind-up gramophone and singing along with it, in a hotel my parents were trying to run on an island in the Adriatic. I was four." He and his parents spent the Thirties and Forties in ceaseless peregrination round Austria and Yugoslavia as battle-lines came and went; it must have been an anxious time, but he describes it with serene good humour. "I grew up ambulant. I am a person who does not feel the need to be rooted." But is he not rooted in his Hampstead fortress? "Yes and no. I like living here, and I cannot move my library again. But I feel Central-European."

His first public performance was as a leading actor with a children's theatre group in Zagreb, singing in Croatian before he had learnt that language. "I still sometimes dream that I am supposed to attend a rehearsal. Not long ago I woke from a dream in which it was announced that I would play Othello. Now why on earth Othello?" Dr Freud, amused, is at a loss: hence his recent attempt at elucidating the enigma in a poem.

He started playing the piano at six, was put through an intensive course of harmony by a church organist, and went to the conservatory in Graz, where, at 16, he decided he'd learnt enough. "That was my very short genius period, when I did everything, as young people do: composing, playing, writing, and painting - city-scapes, portraits, and finally abstracts." When he was 17, his bemused parents arranged for him to give a concert which he entitled "The Fugue in Piano Literature". This consisted entirely - encores and all - of the most difficult fugues he could lay his hands on, including one of his own. The local critics were impressed, so he went to Vienna to begin his career.

And that career developed very pleasantly. "We started from scratch, but with a lot of hope, because things could only get better. Vienna at that time was a very cheap place to record in, because young artists like me would play for very little. There were no big pianists there, but sometimes I would catch someone on the radio - Edwin Fischer, or Alfred Cortot - and later Wilhelm Kempff when he came to play in town." These became his heroes, and remain his heroes today.

Having won a prize at 18 in the Busoni Competition, he became house-pianist for the Vox label, for whom he recorded stacks of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven; he had to wait till he was nearly 40 before winning the international acclaim that put him where he now is on the map. "It needed a very long runway for the plane to get off the ground," says Judy Arnold, the London agent who championed him - aided by Daniel Barenboim - during the years when he did obscure dates and practised like hell. "But it was a very big plane."

That plane may now have commenced its descent, but Brendel is determined to remain immaculately in control. Indeed, control is what he strives for in every part of his life. His children - the eldest, Doris Brendel, is a successful rock singer - have learnt never to leave a door open. His wife once said, revealingly, that her husband felt threatened by the unruliness of nature, and that he was happiest when protected from his family's emotional demands by being alone on a plane or in a hotel room.

Brendel's Liszt, Schubert, and Beethoven are controlled by the same intellectuality that informs his two brilliant books of musical analysis, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out. The pianist Imogen Cooper, who studied with him in Vienna, says: "I felt very strongly the danger of hanging around him too long - the danger of becoming his blueprint, so forceful, so clear was his vision."

Having had several conversations with Brendel, I'm struck by the fact that he will often repeat the same thought in identical words: for him, an interview is just another performance, to be rehearsed and got perfect. He once told me how he planned his career: "My approach was slow and gradual, and maybe also logical. When I was 20, the pianists I admired were in their fifties, sixties and seventies: I felt that I would like to achieve certain things by the time I was 50. And when I was 50, I said to myself, 'Some things have gone well, but perhaps there are still things I could add, so let's give it another 20 years!'" Whereupon he burst into laughter.

As any psychoanalyst might have said, the id had to emerge somewhere from under this surfeit of control: hence the poems, which he started writing during a flight to Japan. "After two hours of being half-asleep and half-awake - an important state of mind - the first poem, about a third index finger, began to come through. I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote it down, looked at it in Tokyo, corrected a few things, and found it rather funny. So I went on writing."

Thirty poems later, a book took shape - One Finger Too Many, from which Birtwistle has drawn his inspiration for his Four Settings of Alfred Brendel, which will be revealed at next week's Prom. And if there is a leitmotif in these poems, it is laughter - as a liberating, disruptive, regenerative force. "At one stage in my life," Brendel says, "I didn't laugh enough. Some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue."

There's no literary vanity in these terse, purposeful utterances. They are often strikingly cinematic - Buñuel is an influence - but the prime source of their imagery is Brendel's lifelong passion for painting and sculpture. One or two are theatrical fantasies; the most savage is also, in Brendel's view, the most realistic. In it the Lord of the Universe contemplates his good works, which range from wars to tornadoes to deftly implanted sexual anguish. Brendel has just brought out a new collection with the whimsical title Cursing Bagels.

But he's still a pianist first and last, as evidenced by a defiant utterance in his recent book The Veil of Order: "I shall go on playing as long as my fingers make that possible, as long as my constitution can manage it, as long as my memory functions, as long as my ears hear." No, he won't go gentle into that goodnight.

Prom 43, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms) 17 August. 'The Veil of Order' and 'Cursing Bagels' are published by Faber

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