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Having taken his leave of the concert platform in 2008, Alfred Brendel bids farewell to the printed page with a ‘final compilation’ of essays and lectures published in 2015.

This fascinating compendium contains the entirety of his earlier books, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out – material that has been ‘corrected but, on the whole, not updated’. Brendel’s refusal to allow hindsight to interfere with older commentaries proves a useful marker in mapping changes in his opinions and analyses over the years, especially so in relation to the noticeably freer, wider-ranging new pieces that complete this farewell volume.

He writes with the same elegantly authoritative signature he displayed at the piano. The tone is tempered by a lifetime’s wisdom, the clarity of thought and nuanced expression that distinguishes his poetry, and a wit that moves from whimsy to the absurd with mischievous ease – as evidenced by the deliciously impish and all too brief ‘Me, Myself and I’, in which he interrogates two doppelgängers.

The book is structured in three sections. The first explores those composers who have meant the most to the pianist- poet: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Busoni, with nodding glances to Schumann and Schoenberg. The analysis here is detailed and often dense (having a score to hand helps considerably) but altogether absorbing: the insights on offer often both intellectually and musically ravishing.

Turning his attention to ‘Performances, Programmes, Recordings’, Brendel has much to say about the nature of all three and his changing perception of their respective values. ‘In the age of the gramophone record,’ he ruefully observes, ‘concerts on inadequate pianos make less sense than ever.’

The concluding series of conversations and commentaries includes the essay that gives the book its title. Here, Brendel’s references range from Baudelaire and the Bible to Shakespeare and Edward Lear, to Haydn, Kant and Orwell, Dostoyevsky and Dadaism, Goethe and much else. It’s a quintessential treatise: erudite, inquisitive, humane and revealingly self-aware.

Apparent throughout is a fierce intellect, a full heart, a quizzical view of life and music, and a conviction in the interdependency of the two.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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