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Discussion of Brendel’s essays and lectures requires a book in itself to encompass fully the rarest instance of perception, wit and wisdom. Alone among the great artists of our time Brendel clearly derives his musical wealth from an inclusive overview of life itself, an all-embracing reach that moves, startles, provokes and above all  enlarges knowledge. Many of these essays have appeared in print before, but their profound sense of curiosity and wonder makes revisiting them worthwhile.

While celebrating the need for practical knowledge of how music works, Brendel is keen to point out the limitations of academic analysis. For him, music is a transcendental art, one where feeling comes first, taking you far beyond the readily explicable. Time and again he lights on an illuminating  phrase –  notably his love of Novalis’s claim that great art is ‘chaos shimmering through the veil of order’.

Personally, I remain grateful for suggestive rather than dogmatic comments that have led me to the core of musical experience. Cortot’s description of the central section of Fauré’s Third Impromptu as ‘like an avenue of fans folding and unfolding’, or a reference to  Schubert’s short Sonata in A major Op 120 as ‘succinct and full of the smiling lights and colours of a spring day’,  have outshone references to harmonic procedure and this or that modulation.

Nonetheless Brendel’s  studies on his greatest loves – on Mozart, Beethoven,  Schubert and Liszt – are as rigorous as they are imaginative, sending out ripples that prompt you to think again and again. He can slap down the ‘Mozart of yesteryear’, which ‘permitted no strong forte, and no disturbing accents’ (a Dresden porcelain view of Mozart) and point out instead how  boldly Mozart could darken beauty. His admiration for the noble as opposed to flamboyant Liszt stems from his feeling that Liszt has been used and abused by self-seeking virtuosi.  There is a masterly and much quoted look at the change from Liszt’s ‘exuberance of the heart’ to the ‘bitterness of the heart’ exemplified in, for example, the transition from the ‘La Campanella’ Étude to the ‘Angelus’ from the third volume of Années de pèlerinage; from  the early glanz or glitter period to a cloistered and bleak sobriety

His mind on higher things, Brendel resists even a mention of the more superficial aspects of the music scene, on the competition arena or on the publicity-seeking careers of pianists such as Lang Lang and Pogorelich. Instead there are tributes to Cortot and Kempff and most of all to his beloved teacher Edwin  Fisher – great artists first, pianists second. There are also passing tributes to Pollini and Pierre-Laurent Aimard for their devotion to the contemporary cause.

There are, however, a  few touches of steel behind the outwardly benign surface: Brendel has nothing but disdain for  those foolish enough to think that ‘there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists’; for record producers who consider the end product to be their own creative achievement; and for the assumption that the older the pianist the better the playing. More generally, there is a telling attack on ‘the havoc caused by religion throughout history, and the havoc it continues to cause today’.

Brendel’s reflections on the recording process and on the 60 or so CDs he has made during his long career, on live, studio and mixed recordings, are wise and searching.

Wherever you turn in this series of unique essays – unique in the sense that they come from a great pianist irresistibly drawn to philosophical discussion – it makes you forgive a less than liberal view of the French repertoire and also of Rachmaninov (‘the art of elevated conversation’). No more probing or ultimately heart-warming book on music – and so much else – exists.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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