Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures By Alfred Brendel, book review

A glorious guide to a modest and focused pianist

Boyd Tonkin
Wednesday 09 September 2015 19:42 BST

Robson Press, £25. Order for £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

In a conversation reprinted in this glorious compendium of the great pianist's writings on music, Martin Meyer asks Alfred Brendel how his life might have turned out better. Well, replies the 84-year-old musician who has allied a six-decade career on the topmost heights of recital and recording with wit and insight as an essayist and poet, it would have been good not to grow up (in Austria and Croatia) under the Third Reich: "No wars, no memories of Nazis and fascists... no soldiers, party members and bombs." He has another gripe, however. This keen movie buff never got to perform "film music for Woody Allen". Quick! Can't someone put their agents in touch? This evergreen pair won't last for ever.

Brendel, film scores for quirky highbrow comedies aside, has achieved almost everything else. He has scaled every pianistic peak with famous modesty, focus and professionalism. Among his pieces of advice for a successful career: always turn up on time. Every music lover knows that he stands in the opposite corner to those egomaniac "platform hyenas who devour masterpieces like carrion". Still, the scrupulous and limpid Brendel style by no means amounts to bashful self-effacement. Rather, as his finely detailed studies of Beethoven and Liszt here show, expert immersion both in a piece and its performing context should allow the player to avoid both "eccentricity" and the illusion of utter "fidelity" to the composer's intentions. In an aside, Brendel writes that "I have been made immune to blind faith by the years I spent under the Nazi regime".

Listening to Brendel, you may feel – as he says about his teacher Edwin Fischer and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, both of whom he reveres – "this sensation of music not being played, but rather happening by itself". Yet both of his idols had formidable musical personalities. So does Brendel. Like Fischer, Brendel often sounds "at once correct and bold". As author, as well as performer, "I am not interested in clichés, but in what is special and unique". Whether cheerleading for Liszt, or celebrating the humour in Haydn, the sage of Hampstead is always forthright and never bland.

With their copious musical quotations, some of the close-up analyses here – especially the magisterial accounts of Schubert's sonatas – speak more to the musician than to the lay listener. Many other essays are as welcoming as Brendel playing Mozart. Sometimes as whimsical and drily comic as Woody Allen himself, the final 150 pages should appeal to everyone with an ear for unfussy mastery in music – and in words.

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