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Absurdities of the keyboard

From his first reviews to the latest headlines, Alfred Brendel has spent decades observing and overcoming the follies of performance.

March 11, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — AS someone who appreciates the world's absurdities, Alfred Brendel has naturally been following the current scandal in his own field: how the widower of a long-ailing British pianist has confessed to stealing other musicians' recordings and passing them off as his wife's, thus winning raves from critics in the woman's last years.

"The whole thing is so ridiculous," Brendel said the other day, shaking his head at the naivete of the supposed experts who so wanted to believe they had stumbled on an undiscovered genius that they bought the notion that Joyce Hatto, though unable to perform in public for three decades, had somehow made "a hundred records of the most demanding pieces." And where had this woman, who couldn't play for live audiences, found the "obscure orchestra" her sound engineer husband listed on the CDs he sold under his own label? "Who was the conductor who does not exist, who was an invented thing? And how is it possible that such different playing comes from one person?"

As Brendel spoke, musical sleuths had only begun unraveling the extent of the fraud, but they had found that a recording of Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" that the husband marketed as his cancer-stricken wife's was the work of Laszlo Simon, while her supposed Rachmaninoff concertos were Yefim Bronfman playing. Still, Brendel said he would be "amused" if any of his own recordings -- and there are a lot, five decades' worth -- were found to have been pirated. He just doubted the husband would have been that foolish.

"It is rather unlikely," said the 76-year-old pianist. "Because I think they concentrated on people who are not well known ... these lesser-known people."

Brendel, who stopped in Manhattan shortly before launching his annual North American tour -- including a recital Tuesday in Los Angeles -- has long embraced the interplay of supposed opposites. Between chaos and order in music, for instance. Or between sense and nonsense in his poetry, like some verses imagining a pianist growing a third index finger that he could use "to expose an obstinate cougher in the hall."

There's also the interplay of ego and humility in the life of a musician, and that's an issue sometimes brought up by others, for few performers so accomplished have so emphasized the limits of their own role. "Without the composer, the performer would not exist," he noted, and no performer should be called a genius -- certainly not that faker Hatto, but not him either, or even Horowitz. Indeed, Brendel has dared to express his own less-than-total enthusiasm for that most legendary of pianists, whose "kind of virtuosity" may have pleased the crowds but "rarely served the music as I understood it."

Brendel knows he can get in trouble talking that way -- you can't be caught saying you're better than Horowitz -- but he'll point to the man's recording of Liszt's B-minor sonata as "too rhapsodic over long stretches" and thus contrary to "what Liszt intended."

That's not to diminish the role of the player. As he sees it, it's the performer's highest calling to "do justice to the piece ... to understand it on its own terms ... and not tell the pieces what they should be like and tell the composers what they should have composed."

True, he's observed that some composers take liberties with their works -- Rachmaninoff when he recorded his second piano concerto, or Bartok when he played his Suite, Opus 14, much faster than the metronome markings. "He was the composer," Brendel reasoned. "He had the better right to do so than a performer would." Then again, "Maybe he didn't even notice.... Who knows?"

An "Austrian mix" who was born in Moravia -- currently part of the Czech Republic -- Brendel published an interview-style autobiography a few years ago called "Me of All People." Prompted by questions from a Swiss writer, he says he knew that he was talented but was "not impatient" early in his career when he did not get the same attention as some other pianists, nor did he aspire to "hero worship."

A New York Review of Books piece subsequently expressed skepticism that he was "content for his career to evolve slowly." More likely, the article speculated, the situation "seemed to him absurd and perhaps depressing." But Brendel wrote back that they should "take me at my word when I say that I am still puzzled by success, and that the relatively slow pace of my career ... left me largely unruffled."

"I am not," he concluded, "a poseur."

He's also the pianist who, when he first saw himself on TV, noticed wild arm movements that might distract audiences from the music, so he began practicing surrounded by mirrors to force himself to eliminate those gestures. The critics could theorize that a performer is by definition a showman, but "I do not understand this," he insisted. "I want to not be the focus."

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