A Pianist’s A-Z, Alfred Brendel

Released 5 Sept 2013

I’m quite a fan of Alfred Brendel. Certainly as a pianist – his playing has great honesty and clarity, serving always the music, rather than himself. He is sincere about music without being precious about it, and heaven knows, we need more like that.

He has made many excellent recordings, but I can single out as one of my personal favourites his 1955 Moscow recital. This contains terrific renditions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures and Stravinsky’s Petrushka (as well as that Balakirev thing, which I’ve never been that keen on as a piece, but kazhdiy po-svoemy – each to their own, and the three together are something like the “Cav & Pag” of Slavophile piano.)

Brendel is a link to a disappearing past and he’s lived through many changes in the way classical music is composed, presented and received. For so many, sadly, the image of classical music is one of stony-faced pomposity, and some musicians even seem to like things that way. Brendel, however, is an educated gentleman with a naughty twinkle in his eye, and reminds us that it never was all about blood’n’thunder maestros and stroppy divas. (Hmm, X Factor, The Voice – history repeats?)

In fact, classical ensembles can be really very naughty twinkly outfits. Emotional expression is their stock in trade, and those lacking humour are missing a large part of the palette. It wasn’t a critic, but a musician, that came up with the old gag: “Difference between an orchestra and a bull? The bull has the horns at the front and the arsehole at the back.”

Brendel is also an engaging, informative and witty writer, who displays a passion for his subject and an ability to communicate it broadly and clearly. He’s a polymath with great interest in literature, art and philosophy. Note to aspiring musicians: music is a means of telling a story – don’t forget to range wider so you have a few stories to tell…

I confess I haven’t read his poetry collection (One Finger Too Many), but I can recommend his collected essays entitled Brendel on Music. This is a hefty tome, with a few little bonuses for those who can read scores, but you can enjoy it perfectly well if you can’t – it’s overwhelmingly more “wordy” than “notey”. On Music contains, among a great deal else, quite the best advice I’ve ever found on how to evoke orchestral textures on the piano. Remember that a lot of jazz piano is about getting a sense of “horn” out of the right hand…

As Brendel notes in his brief intro, it’s very difficult to write about music, and the main problem is how to pitch things. At a general audience, zealous fans, amateur musicians, pros, academics, historians? Bloody dilettante sociologists? (That’s my prejudice against sociologists, not Brendel’s btw.)

You can love Beethoven’s Ninth for its rousing sentiment of universal brotherhood without going into detail about how batty Ludwig went about rewriting Schiller’s poem, psychoanalysing the man or reproducing reams of score excerpts to pronounce on his late orchestration style and formal approach.

I often ask people’s opinions on performances (my own and others’), to be met with the response: “well, I don’t really know very much about music…” My own view is that if you have a pair of ears, you’re entitled to an opinion. You shouldn’t be shy about not being able to comment on the unorthodox use of polytonality, subversion of sonata form, etc, and simply feel free to say that you got a bit bored in the middle but liked the brassy bits later on. Such plain-spoken observations are often far more meaningful and welcome to a real musician or composer than a splurge of self-regarding semi-academic waffle. The “cloak of respectability” is convenient, and some musicians, academics and critics are actually naked underneath it…

(Incidentally, speaking of critics, my favourite example of getting the teaboy to review jazz went something along the lines of: “like Django Reinhardt with 20 fingers”…)

Brendel: “The piano must be an instrument, not a fetish.”

Brendel has always had his clothes on, as it were, so has no need of the magic cloak. His latest little book is well-pitched: informative without being arcane, chatty without being trite and above all, leavened with wry pleasant humour.

He quotes Einstein as saying “everything should be done as simply as possible, but not ‘simpler’”, and certainly abides by that tenet here.

It’s a slim volume – a mere 117 pages (shame there’s not more of it), and one of those books you could read in an hour or two. But quality over quantity (another note to aspiring musicians). The brief pithy observations are profound and will stay with you and expand in your head. To my mind, that’s good communication and teaching – tell it in three minutes in such a way that it’ll keep on teaching people for years afterwards. Anyway, if you enjoy the snappy Pianist’s A-Z, I reckon you should investigate the more weighty On Music.

He does speak primarily in terms of classical works and composers, but fret ye not – there’s not a single score excerpt and you don’t need to know Scriabin’s opus numbers by heart. However, even if your interest in the piano is in a different style, and you never plan to ever Schu a Mann or Off a Rachmanin, you’ll still enjoy the considered anecdotes of a thoughtful and entertaining personality who’s spent eight decades immersed in music at the highest level.

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Posted in g) Classically Inclined, i) Reviews
3 comments on “A Pianist’s A-Z, Alfred Brendel
  1. I agree, every audience member is entitled to an opinion.
    There is a quote, I wish I could remember who said this and how exactly they said it but in my defence, I’m Generation Y, I have a very short attention span, obsess with stuff for a bit then completely forget about it :)

    Anyway, after my disclaimer, the quote was something over the lines of: If you can’t explain music with simple words then you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

    I think there are many musicians who have a very heightened sense of themselves, refuse to talk about classical music in a simple way for everyone to understand and therefore alienate potential audience members. I think something needs to be done there because it’s killing the trade.

    • Jason says:

      Hi Billie,

      I think the attitude problem with many musicians stems from an inferiority complex. We spend years studying and obsessing, then emerge blinking into the world to realise that nobody really cares very much. On one of three gigs someone mistakes us for a waiter. And some critic who doesn’t know a plagal cadence from a pair of pyjamas will write us up as derivative, etc. Or we were “too slow” in the second movement of Beethoven op 90 – translation: it didn’t sound like the recording they have at home.

      Critics are often the worst – half-experts!

      All too often this leads to a petulant, defensive reaction highlighting just how difficult it is and how special we are. Mistake, IMO. However hairy and smelly an audience may be, in my experience they love good performance, whether it’s Rachmaninov, rock or Rihanna. I’m very much of the opinion that music is as much a craft as an art. Just get on with it!

      Liked your murderous neighbour revenge piece, but don’t really share your enthusiasm with Skyfaww, I’m afraid. She has the lungs, sure, but dodgy use of a rhyming dictionary and trudging through the reharmonised Bond til-ready (Cm Ab F) doesn’t really merit songwriting awards. Praise due for the performance, by all means.

      And a friend of mine from Nashville tells me you can’t move these days for ambitious young things affecting a sort of Amy-Adele cockerney thing. Come back Dick van Dyke, all is forgiven…

      Thanks for dropping by anyway,

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