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MUSIC : Play It Again, Piano Man : Alfred Brendel patiently built his career as the thinking listener's pianist, rapt in the challenge of taking on master works

April 11, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

LONDON — The first time pianist Alfred Brendel saw himself on TV--30 years ago--he was very upset. His intensity and concentration all showed on his face, he remembers, and "my grimacing was both distracting and appalling."

So he set up a huge mirror alongside the piano. As he practiced, he studied and adjusted his facial expressions as well as his playing.

Brendel, who will perform Beethoven sonatas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion April 18 and 21, does not want anything to get in the way of the music, including the pianist. Then and now, the distinguished artist has made a career of interpreting Beethoven, Schubert and other masters without the frills.

Theatrical he isn't, either onstage or off. His playing is more precise than passionate, more intellectual than emotional. His books are well-written but scholarly. And in person, whether leading a guest through his art and book collections or talking pleasantries over soup and pasta, he is a serious presence.

Some critics have called his playing clinical, while others hear more warmth, but nobody questions his proficiency or dedication. Brendel, 62, has been playing piano publicly since 1948 and making records since 1952.

"To get attention, you have to play Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, be young and have a lot of flash," remarks Ward Botsford, the man who produced most of Brendel's early records. "And that is the antithesis of what Alfred Brendel is."

Not that the Austrian musician isn't successful. Someone who has been performing, teaching and writing for so long builds up loyal audiences at both the concert hall and record store. His concerts these days are often sold-out, and his record sales total in the millions.

Many things about his career are atypical, Brendel concedes. "I have no musical background. I was not a child prodigy. I was not from Eastern Europe. And I did not have spectacular early success."

What he had, however, was patience. "I did have an idea of the direction my life had to take, and it was a long-range vision," he says today. "It was not the ambition of a 20-year-old to be famous at the age of 25. In fact, fame didn't come in so much in the first place. It was more the ambition, the hope to achieve some things when I'm 50, which I have more or less accomplished. But it doesn't mean that I don't see plenty of things to do for some decades more."

So what has he chosen to do next? Beethoven, of course. The pianist, who has performed complete cycles of Beethoven's five concertos at least 14 times already, is now reinterpreting the composer's 32 sonatas.

Brendel has already begun recording Beethoven's sonatas for the third time as well as performing them once again around the world. It is a project that will span three years and may also include a book.

"Masterpieces always present something new," Brendel explains. "They're like powerhouses of energy that regenerate the energy of the player. In trying to do better, to improve, you keep in touch with yourself. I don't believe in starting a piece, playing it, recording it and discarding it. For me, the procedure is to find the right works with which one can live a lifetime."

The Brendel family home is in Hampstead, not far from the Keats Library. The Constable house is up the road, Hampstead Village nearby. Few sections of London are so civilized as Hampstead, and few people seem so natural in that setting as Brendel.

A visual amalgam of Michael Caine, Woody Allen and Arthur Miller, the pianist appears in his front door looking rumpled, distracted and professorial. But appearances can be deceptive. His hair may be mussed and unruly--he is, after all, still recovering from a winter flu--but everything else in the Brendel world seems well-ordered and under careful control.

He is a modern-day Renaissance man, a one-time painter who has one studio in which to play his music, another in which to write his articles and books. In his large but cozy Edwardian house, paintings cover nearly every wall that isn't lined with bookshelves. There are art books stacked on coffee tables, and even his pianos prop up assorted papers, sculptures and mementos.

Brendel's children are musical. Doris, 26, the child of his first marriage, writes music, sings and plays guitar. Still at home with Brendel and wife Irene are cellist Adrian, who is 17, 15-year-old Sophie, and 12-year-old Katharina, who plays violin.

But sitting in his studio, surrounded by the musical acquisitions of his own lifetime, the pianist makes it clear he had no such inspiration. An only child, he has called himself "the unlikely son of my parents."

"There were no musicians in the house," he says, "no concerts that my parents went to. There was a piano, and my parents thought it would not hurt if I would have piano lessons."

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