Alfred Brendel writes as tellingly about music as he plays it. Anyone familiar with the pianist’s style—the clean lines of his Mozart and Schubert, the quiet wit of his Haydn—will recognise it in this wide-ranging collection of essays and lectures. Metronome markings and Mozart cadenzas, Charlie Chaplin and Chopin, all come under the gently probing scrutiny of this idiosyncratic mind.
The pieces included here span almost exactly five decades, including material from previous volumes Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out, as well as new writing. Brendel retired from the piano in 2008—“60 years of playing in public seemed sufficient”—and much of the new material here post-dates that retirement. It’s a watershed reflected in a shift in tone. Topics become broader—hearing, recordings, performance habits—and their treatment more concise.
There’s also a new streak of whimsy that reaches its climax in a Dadaist fantasy-dialogue between three Alfred Brendels, but musical observations remain keen as ever. Live recordings are the “stepchild” of the industry, the difference between Haydn and Mozart is “the antithesis between the instrumental and vocal, motif and melody.” A review (barely five pages long) of The New Grove Dictionary of Music is as audacious as it is insightful.
The last word on a lifetime of writing and music making, Music, Sense and Nonsense is more mischievous coda than weighty finale. Even death is faced with a wry smile. “If one had to hear Verdi incessantly in Paradise,” Brendel observes, “I’d ask for leave and the occasional visit to Hell.”