The great pianist's life seems to have passed him by without emotional impact. But he turns out not to be the "intellectual" pianist that people imagine.by Ivan Hewett / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: The veil of order Author: Alfred Brendel in conversation with Martin Meyer Price: (Faber & Faber, ?25)
Alfred Brendel is one of Britain’s central European treasures. He, in turn, likes the British for their imperviousness to fanaticism and sense of the absurd. The first section of this book of conversations with the journalist Martin Meyer is called “Life,” and it reveals Brendel’s lifelong attachment to absurdity.
He had a peripatetic childhood, moving from one part of central Europe to another, including a spell on the Dalmatian island of Krk, where his father ran a hotel. He remembers two cabaret songs from childhood, one of which had the line, “I’ll pull out an eyelash and stab you to death with it.” This is just the kind of line that appears in the surreal, deadpan poetry Brendel has taken to writing in recent years. In fact, his poetical enterprise (which gets a section to itself) could be seen as a recuperation of a childhood view of everything as absurd, even music.
Sometime in his teens, however, Brendel began to take music and literature seriously. How he discovered them is a mystery left intact by this book. His parents were not at all musical, and there seem not to have been many books at home. One gets the sense of an aloofly self-possessed boy, of whom his parents were probably in awe. Looking on the world as one vast Dada cabaret can be amusing, but Brendel also applies this gaze to his own parents. He remembers how his father tried to play the piano “in a carefree, bravura way, raising his hands in jerky movements, and twitching with the corner of his mouth almost up to his eye. My mother was quite the opposite. She would sit very tensely at the piano with an anxious expression and stab at the notes like a woodpecker.” There’s an exaggerated quality about Brendel’s anecdotes, which seems part of a strategy for keeping life at arm’s length.
This is why the “Life” section is rather unrevealing. We learn that Brendel was not precocious and that his progress was slow. During the 1950s, he lived quite a straitened life in Vienna, learning the repertoire and working on his technique. “I was different from other musicians in that I was not impatient… I was calm, slightly ironic, and thinking gave me pleasure.” When his recordings for Philips…