Ever get discouraged by child prodigies
"Music comes out of silence and leads into silence"
SZ-Magazin: Mr. Brendel, two years ago you had a sudden hearing loss. What do you hear today when you listen to music?
Alfred Brendel: I can still hear the violin very clearly, but that's all. I had hoped that in my last years I would get to know Haydn and Handel even better. But they sound too distorted. If the music is very soft, it's difficult because it's too soft. When it gets louder, it's difficult because it gets too loud. It is no longer a pleasure. Now I'm working on my pieces in my head.
On which pieces?
The ones I've played in six decades. Quite a large repertoire. With one or the other piece I think: You haven't solved the matter yet, you can do better. Then I replay it in my head.
Beethoven was 32 when he wrote: “Little was missing and I ended my life myself. Only her, art, she held me back. ”At that time, his hearing deteriorated rapidly.
Yes, you can certainly take that literally. I was happy because the illness came so late for me. I know colleagues who got it much earlier. I resigned myself to it as much as possible because playing the piano was never the only purpose in my life. I'm a writer too, and not just on the side. And I can still give lectures and readings, listen to string quartets here and there.
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Was it a relief or a torture for you to stop performing after six decades?
A relief. I didn't want to play if I couldn't play well enough. But that would have meant: I still had to practice a lot. Besides, I never played concerts like a drug. There are colleagues who have to have it like addicts have their morphine. I played voluntarily, so I was able to quit voluntarily. I am pleased to have stepped down from the podium in good time.
Are you a fateful person?
Not at all. In fact, I'm extremely aggressive about fate. When I think of the fact that Schubert had to die at the age of 31, that Keats and Büchner had to die so early - I'm not ready to forgive that!
On Schubert's grave in Vienna there is a saying by Franz Grillparzer: "The art of music buried rich possessions here, but much better hopes."
When he died, only the songs and two or three symphonies were known. It was only much later that it became clear what a great work there was. There were very risky things that he composed last year, something would certainly have come out of them. I find that Schubert's work is perhaps the most astonishing case of any composer, with nearly a thousand works in 31 years, many of which are significant. Not only the songs, but above all the instrumental works of the past eight years.
In the sixties you sat down in photo booths after concert evenings with the singer Hermann Prey and made faces at verses from Schubert songs. You have never been stingy with your facial expressions on stage either.
There are pianists who have very immobile faces. There are others who show with their faces what is going on in the music. And then there are those who involuntarily make faces. I was one of them. When I was young I had no idea I was doing this. People always said you have to be careful, you look so weird. And I thought they were talking about completely unimportant stuff while I was trying to make music. Eventually I saw myself on TV and got a shock. Especially with slow passages I grimaced that it was unbearable. I tried to get used to this with the help of a mirror that I didn't look directly into, but somehow got an impression. It got better that way, and the audience got used to it. From now on, the television was only allowed to film me from behind during slow passages.
Have you ever passed out while playing?
As far as I know, not. It would have been very impressive.
What helps against stage fright?
I advise young pianists, when they come on stage, not to sit on the chair forever and tinker with it and stretch their hands and maybe put them on the piano and then take them away again and finally start. You have to know right away what the basic character of the piece is and communicate it. I would also not recommend sitting there for minutes at the end of the piece to make it extra festive until people are allowed to clap. There are pieces where this is necessary. But as a rule, I find that a little ridiculous.
What do you do with people who applaud after the first sentence?
Nothing at all. Wait for them to stop. That was still common practice in Haydn's time.
Is the festive, stiff atmosphere that prevails at classical concerts today? When Liszt played in the 19th century, his appearances were like today's pop concerts with screaming fans.
Yes, Liszt even had a chat with the audience from time to time. He was surely the greatest pianist there ever was. Still, I prefer the silence.
In the fifties you drew attention in Vienna when you were walking through the Musikverein with a baby turtle.
The atmosphere there was always solemn. So one day I led the turtle through the audience by a thread and people whispered: Can you take someone like that seriously? Unfortunately, the animal did not live very long.
Is playing the piano more athletic or intellectual?
Both of course, of course. It's athletic when you play a certain repertoire that requires a lot of strength. For the Concerto in B flat major or the Brahms Concerto in D minor you have to have a certain athletic ability. Since overexerting my left arm more than 20 years ago, I have taken certain very athletic pieces from my repertoire and played the less athletic ones. I could easily do without Rachmaninoff. There was always enough other. The piano literature is so big and so great.
Which finger could a pianist most likely do without?
In the old piano music, probably the thumb. For a while you only played with your other fingers.
In one of your poems, a pianist has a third index finger. Have you ever wished that?
Oh no, ten fingers are enough. I've known a woman with six fingers on each hand. She had a small record company and ran a bar in Paris. She had a small thumb next to the other on each hand. But that would hardly have helped her playing the piano - on the contrary, the extra thumbs would have been in the way.
Can you recommend good finger insurance?
No. I never bothered about it.
Your hands were never insured?
I can't even tell. I do not think so.
Sometimes you played your fingers sore. Old recordings show that you wear plasters when you play.
It was just the fingernails. In the fifties I was supposed to record a number of virtuoso pieces for the Vox label, including Stravinsky's Petrushka. At some point I noticed that my fingernails were almost hanging down in fringes because I have large hands and long fingers, where sometimes the fingering comes on the fingernails on a chord or an octave. And if you have to play very percussively like with Petrushka, you have to come up with something to prevent that. Since then, I've always had plasters on two or three fingers. That doesn't get in the way as long as you use the right plaster, Leukoplast and Hansaplast, then you get used to it after two or three days. And it doesn't take anything away from the sensitivity.
Worst grand piano you've ever had to play?
That was in Ballarat, one of the coldest places in Australia. I was carelessly there on my first visit in winter. People were sitting there wrapped in blankets, and afterwards I told the audience that I would like an ax to smash the wing.
Do you still have four wings?
Yes, two Steinway and two Bösendorfer.
Do you care who plays on it when you are no longer alive?
I will of course try to give the grand pianos to people who really need them or are worthy of them with the help of a piano foundation. So either very talented young people or institutions that need a better wing.
So a student of Glenn Gould, whom you little admired, should also play?
Did he even have any? I don't know any Glenn Gould students. There are certainly people who imitate him.
I consider Thomas Bernhard to be an overrated author. One can also complain less about Vienna and Austria.
The narrator in Thomas Bernhard's novel The loser gives away his Steinway to a village teacher whose nine-year-old daughter ruins the piano in a very short time - and the former pianist observes "this mindless destruction with perverse lust."
Yeah, I read that with no great pleasure. Thomas Bernhard wanted to be a musician, he wanted to be a singer. First he apparently sang to a conductor who sent him away. Then he had tuberculosis. But he tried again and again to be a musical connoisseur. And I think bringing Horowitz and Glenn Gould together is pretty silly. I consider Thomas Bernhard to be an overrated author. One can also complain less about Vienna and Austria.
I could give you a whole series of examples of short sentences that deal with this - instead of, as with Thomas Bernhard, ten pages or 15-minute tirades on stage. Even before the First World War, the poet Albert Ehrenstein called Vienna a "friable Goderl of the world". For Karl Kraus it was the »experimental station for the end of the world« and for Alfred Polgar it was »the happy grave on the Danube«.
Is that how you felt about Vienna too?
Back then I found Vienna a good place to live in protest. Today Vienna is a different city. In any case, it was very stimulating. And I also feel connected to Austria through the literature of the first half of the 20th century. I am not a person who has to or wants to be rooted. I am a paying guest.
That suits someone who grew up in a hotel.
It was very good that my parents were outpatients for the first few years. First in northern Moravia, then on the Adriatic coast, then in Zagreb, later in Graz.
For forty years you have lived in a semi-detached house in London in the affluent district of Hampstead.
We started in the next house and then the neighbors moved out. We added the other house out of self-defense. Because if a family with children had moved in here and played pop music, then I would have had to move out.
Your eldest daughter makes pop music. Do you think that's bad?
First of all, she's no longer in the house. Second, there are headphones. It doesn't bother me at all, as long as I'm not exposed to the noise of this music, which is known to be performed at high volume.
Is the world noisy today more than it was fifty years ago?
Today, our ears are exposed to unparalleled levels of noise, noise pollution, vulgarization and brutalization. The ear is the first sensory organ that is set in motion in the fetus in the womb. It is a very wonderful, precious organ, one has to be careful with it.
Is there any point in listening to Brendel's Mozart piano sonatas during pregnancy?
I can not say that. But if the mother sings well, for example, that can make a difference.
Octavio Paz once wrote that music extends into silence like architecture into space.
The music comes from the silence and leads into the silence. That is a very important factor. And it turns out in the concert hall when the silence of the listener isn't there and there are two or three nervous coughs who don't even know what they're doing. Then the circuit is broken that goes from the stage to the auditorium and then returns to the end of the game.
You have occasionally interrupted your concerts and politely asked troublemakers to stop coughing.
I think these people do not even notice that they are disturbing. There are many these days who are used to sitting in front of the television where something comes out but nothing in return. They think it's the same in a concert and don't even notice that it bothers the people sitting around - and that the pianist on stage sometimes hears it particularly loud!
The name Brendel is derived from Brändli, which means something like devil. In your poems you tend to be more like the guardian devils than the angels, and your blasphemy is so furious, so passionate that it is hard to believe that you don't care about God. You need him for one thing so that you can make fun of him.
That may be true. But I really don't have the slightest doubt that I can do very well without God. I keep bringing it up because I am constantly observing religions and seeing how people depend on them. I kindly always leave a door open for those who see things differently.
You call decency your favorite virtue. Which vices do you cultivate in old age?
I'm not so moral that vices and virtues are a contradiction in terms to me. I'm such an either-and-or person. That is perhaps also an Austrian inheritance.
A deadly sin that you left out?
I love making lists for myself. But I never have deadly sins like that
Your compatriot Anton Bruckner, who wanted to dedicate his Ninth Symphony to God, would have been shocked.
That is entirely possible, and probably also is Bach, who always wrote "Soli Deo Gloria". The devilish in literature is important to me. But in music it would have been unbearably restrictive for me to exclude the divine. I hope that sometimes a little sulfur is added. But I've always tried to express the breadth of music and to know more and more about people as I get older, to be able to play more roles.
Which masterpieces make life more bearable?
All. That's why they're masterpieces. There were two things that made my life worth living. One is art, the other is love.
Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert have long been part of the canon. Which composers of the early 20th century do you value?
Music around 1900 was always at risk of kitsch, and there are very few composers like Debussy who have escaped it. Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is a great piece. Along with Schönberg's Opus 11 and Bartok's Suite Im Freien, it is one of the great piano works of the first half of the 20th century.
Richard Wagner was a bad anti-Semite, but a brilliant composer. With artists, is there a connection between person and work?
I learned early on to differentiate between people and artists. People are one way or another and all have more or a few dark spots. This also applies to artists. Beethoven had a terribly messy way of living, he lived in chaos, and when you see his handwriting you think he was a madman. But he still created works of a grandiose order. Or take Smetana. He had lost several family members, he was deaf, he was syphilitic - and composed the Moldau. Their finale is the happiest thing I have ever known in terms of music. And shortly before his death, Schubert composed The Shepherd on the Rock. It is completely free of any breath of death. On the contrary: His end is cocky.
They like to complain about "stupid virtuosos".
Do i do that? These are people who have fabulous fingers and can handle everything that is fast and loud, with ease, maybe even quietly - but not feel and mostly also do not know what is going on in the music. With some pianists I have the impression that the piano has eaten them up. With them the piano becomes a fetish. They treat piano music as if it were just piano music.
What else is piano music?
For as long as I can remember, the grand piano has been a vessel for all kinds of musical ideas for me. Orchestral, vocal, instrumental music. Hans von Bülow called the pianist a ten-finger orchestra. Almost all of the great piano composers were also or mainly ensemble composers. The most diverse musical ideas flow into the piano. That was not only the case in Romanticism. Among Mozart's sonatas there are definitely orchestral ones. And Bach's Italian Concerto in its three movements offers an example of three different constellations. For me the piano is a place of transformation. Some pianists play the piano and others play the rainbow.
How do you find Lang Lang?
Don't ask me such direct questions. I wish him luck.
Now I was just about to ask you about Arcadi Volodos.
So far I've only heard it on records. I was very impressed by his first Liszt recording, it is something special.I also played all the pieces he plays. And he plays it differently. He has great pianistic abilities in the whole spectrum, in hearing the sound, in the ability to play from the softest to the loudest. And I wouldn't praise this Liszt point of view if it hadn't also been musically interesting to me.
Does the grand piano seduce the performer into self-expression?
When I think of the great pianists two or three generations ago, there were one or two super virtuosos. But otherwise not necessarily. If we look at Russia, the generation of Oistrach and Gilels and Richter: They were musicians with a completely different orientation than many of today's. They were also attuned to Central Europe, while now there is a risk of great musical nationalism emerging.
What do you mean?
For some young Russians, Schubert doesn't exist. Bach and Mozart are chores. Many maintain a nationalistic repertoire.
Do you know a good Karajan joke?
I don't even know a bad one. And you?
Karajan gets into a taxi. The driver asks him where to go. Karajan replied: It doesn't matter, I'm needed everywhere.
That suits him.
Who was the nicest conductor you've ever worked with?
One of the friendliest is certainly Simon Rattle, a delightful man. But I never really could complain.
The rudest reviewer who ever discussed you?
I am not saying that! Just this much: I have a lot of respect for critics who are seriously concerned with the new music. And I hate critics who are arrogant.
Finally, please, a conciliatory anecdote about critics.
The evening before a big concert I went to the theater in Frankfurt and discovered Marcel Reich-Ranicki there. Knowing that he was a great music lover, I said: I'll play tomorrow, do you want to come? He laughed at me: if you have tickets for me. I promised him the tickets and said goodbye, whereupon he called after me: Yes, do you remember my name? And I said: Yes, of course, you are Joachim Kaiser!
was not born a child prodigy in 1931, but only experienced his breakthrough in middle age. In the course of his six decades-long stage career, he recorded Beethoven's complete works, as well as Mozart, Schubert, Liszt and many others. He is considered one of the best pianists of his time - not to be confused with the bar pianist Alfred Brendel (Reverie at the piano). Brendel, the classic, also made a name for himself as an essayist and writer of nonsense poems. His book was recently published Belief in miracles and discrepancies (Hanser Verlag, 15.90 euros).
Photos: Spencer Murphy
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