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This slim volume of 125 pages is a collection of essays of diverse character, some serious, others eccentric, exercising the author’s lively appreciation of nonsense and keen sense of the ridiculous. As he argues, ‘Sense is restricted, tied to rules, and finite … We savour the temporary escape from the real and habitual. At the same time, our awareness of reality is sharpened.’ Brendel mentions a surprising fact – that the early German Romantics (including Novalis and Ludwig Tieck) were fond of nonsense. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll we take for granted, but ‘nonsense poetry had already been alive and well in the Middle Ages, if not in Ancient Egypt’. He cites a 14th- century text in which ‘a fierce battle between a hedgehog and a flying earthworm is arbitrated by a floating grindstone’.

Some items are merely translations of poems. Brendel himself (a poet whose verses, many subversive or surreal, were published in 2010) translates the absurdist Daniil Kharms’ There was a man, while translations of verses by Velimir Khlebnikov are by Paul Schmidt and Vladimir Markov. As we can hear in his performances of Haydn and Beethoven, Brendel is more alive to humour than most other musicians. His deep appreciation of the subversive is an ideal qualification for interpreting these two composers. Similarly he relishes Dadaism – the longest (and most profusely illustrated) of these essays is about the Dada movement, which celebrated its centenary in 2016. Since the war there have been many links to Dada – obviously Monty Python, but other figures whom Brendel calls ‘honorary Dadaists’. Some of Mauricio Kagel’s late compositions, works by Ligeti and Virgil Thomson’s Piano Sonata all belong in this category.

In the brief essay from which the book takes its name Brendel reflects on a tailor’s mannequin by Franco Fedeli, a local artist in the small Tuscan town of Arezzo. As Brendel reminds us, this happens to be the town where Piero della Francesca created his sublime cycle of murals in the Church of San Francesco. The mannequin (illustrated on page 43) dwelt in a shop window on the Corso Italia, but now lives in Brendel’s house in Hampstead. It is a lady with an egg on her head and a long-legged wooden frame below the waist. Her eyes, unlike those in many portraits which follow you around the room, engage nobody. As Brendel writes: ‘The Lady from Arezzo avoids you wherever you are. Without seeing the viewer, her eyes are open’. ‘Franco Fedeli … applied the egg directly to the lady’s head – an inspired idea, without which the figure would lose all its mystery.’ Brendel has a penchant for quirky or grotesque works of art – unintentional humour – collecting such artefacts on his travels.

The second longest essay here is My Musical Life. Here Brendel’s modesty – genuine, not forced – humour and wisdom are combined. Never conceited or pompous, he has no wish to write an autobiography, but there is much in this final essay to compensate. I must select a few quotations: ‘I’ve played the Schoenberg Concerto 68 times, made three recordings of it, and given premiere performances on three continents. It has remained a problem piece but one whose problems repay close consideration’; ‘I embarked on a recording of Beethoven’s complete piano works. It was a fortunate decision to start with his smaller sets of variations … I realised that the purported Titan was also able to compose with a light hand, enjoy being witty, and demonstrate his own individual version of gracefulness. The player can learn to characterise, to give each variation its own specific flavour.’ Among his experiences of many different conductors is this witty, tactful observation: ‘Very old conductors usually need to be accompanied by the soloist.’ And on opera: ‘Opera direction at that time [the 1950s] did not offer commentaries, paraphrases or parodies of works, but stagings that communicated even to the uninitiated what was actually going on’; ‘I was [in America] … branded as an intellectual. That’s what happens if you publish books, wear spectacles, and don’t play Rachmaninov.’ This thoroughly recommendable book shows Brendel, a musician of the broadest interests, as characteristically amusing, erudite and wise.

Philip Borg-Wheeler Read the full review on Agora Classica


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