Monday, December 29, 2008

Alfred Brendel: The Accountant’s Pianist

Alfred Brendel, allegedly a pianist, has retired. Music lovers with functioning hearing and discernment the world over are heaving sighs of relief.

There was a time when I actually admired Brendel. What can I say? I was young and easily impressed. Brendel’s 1970s Beethoven Sonata cycle was the first complete set I owned, and his was the first Schubert D. 960 Sonata I ever heard. The first recording one hears of a given work tends to become an “imprint” of how it should be played. But when I heard Wilhelm Kempff’s Beethoven and, especially, Schubert, I heard what real artistry is. Donal Henahan wrote of Brendel’s Beethoven that it “was as if Mr. Brendel were projecting an X-ray picture of each sonata onto screen for our admiration rather than luring us into the heart and soul of the composer.” No one could have said that about Kempff’s Beethoven, which carried the listener across an emotional arc. Kempff’s Schubert taught me the meaning of the quote that Schubert’s Sonatas are like Beethoven in heaven. Brendel’s Schubert Sonatas are not performed, or even played, as much as picked over, like an unappetizing meal.

Even before I’d heard Kempff, I heard Brendel’s pathetic attempt to record Chopin’s Polonaises. That’s when I began to discern cracks in the façade of Brendel’s playing and his so-called “musicianship” – for a true musician would never have consented to record pieces for which he was so unsuited. His Chopin, shot-through with red light-green light/stop-go phrasing, had no sense of “line”. How ironic that someone who grunts so audibly during his playing should be so lacking any understanding of the vocal inspiration behind much of Chopin. Nor was Brendel able to balance the harmonies with the melodies. Then there was the rhythm: His A-flat Polonaise was so awkward I laughed the first time I heard it, and the Polonaise-Fantasie, which depends on the artful integration of the polonaise rhythm, was dead on arrival. I remembered Harold Schonberg’s comment that “no musician has an all-embracing culture”. Later, I read Brendel’s statement that the only “great” music was written within the Austro-German-Hungarian borders. Brendel’s comment reminded me of Schnabel’s self-imposed rule that he only performed music that was “better than it can be played.” But Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, written by a Pole who was living in France, also fits into that category. It was then that I realized that Brendel not only had a very limited musical culture, but also a narrow mind. Brendel’s pretense is surpassed only by his arrogance. Or is it insecurity? The two often go hand in hand. Once at a private residence in Vienna, Brendel spotted a large poster of Mitsuko Uchida, turned it around to face the wall and declared "we don't need things like that here." In light of his comments regarding the geography of the great composers, and his treatment of a poster bearing Uchida’s (who is Asian) image, one has to ask: Is Brendel racist?

Brendel’s playing highlights the misconception of what constitutes piano technique. If one quantifies technique as being the ability to put the right finger in the right place at the right time, Brendel would pass nearly any test. One has to have steady fingers to be able to play Busoni’s nearly impossible Toccata – and Brendel does this very well. Mozart, however, would have deemed those abilities as mere mechanics. Tone production and the ability to project a varied and interesting sound world is also a kind of technique, and here Brendel falls short; his shallow sonority is not anyone’s idea of pleasant. The Philips label, for which Brendel recorded from the 1970s onward, was known for the realism of their recordings – and their recordings accurately convened the sad reality of Brendel’s sound world – if he even has one. The Philips recordings uncannily matched the two occasions I heard him “live”, if that term could be used for any of his playing. At least the recordings spare us the visual impact of Brendel’s stage manner – which is akin to observing someone in the throes of a painful bowel movement.

Brendel has tried to deflect criticism of his tone, stating that “There is a certain idea of ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, ‘appropriate’ piano playing which reduces everything to pianistic terms. I try to do exactly the opposite, to remove music from these limitations and to make people forget the piano.” Brendel’s comments amount to what psychologists call rationalization: “I can’t/won’t do it, so it isn’t necessary/desirable.” His remarks are also dead wrong, as often his tone is a distraction, distracting the listener away from the music itself, leaving one wondering if there’s something wrong with Brendel’s instrument (he often voices the piano himself).

Some have praised Brendel’s early recordings, on the Vox label. While they tend to be a bit more extroverted than in later years and even show hints of spontaneity, they don’t match even his mid-level contemporaries like Gary Graffman or Andre Tchaikovsky – both of whose recorded legacies have been shamefully neglected by Sony. In the end, what I hear is a pianist delivering competent performances in exchange for a paycheck.

Brendel’s recordings are ideal for those who want to prove their own attachment to “culture” to their friends. Here’s the intellectual man on the CD cover (you can see he’s intellectual because he wears glasses) playing snob repertoire. It matters not whether the recordings are actually good, from a performance standpoint. These are the kinds of recordings one plays in the background while doing household chores or balancing the checkbook, rather than the recordings that pin one’s ears to the wall and rivet the soul.

One would think, based on what has been called Brendel’s pedantry, that he’s an exponent of the school of textual fidelity. But that’s not supported by the facts. From his stylistically anachronous embellishments to Mozart concertos, to alterations to Mussorgsky’s Pictures and an Exhibition, to his steadfast refusal to include the repeat in the first movement of Schubert’s D. 960 Sonata, Brendel is willing to alter or ignore the composer’s instructions whenever it suits him. There goes that rationalization again. Not that I have a problem with a bit of tampering when appropriate – especially in a work like the Mussorgsky which was written by someone who simply did not know the piano. Works like that cry out for a skillful intervening hand – just as would do with an attempt to write a play in Shakespeare’s style by someone who didn’t speak English. The irony, of course, is that when works are performed which have a tradition of freedom with the score, such as Liszt’s Rhapsodies, Brendel reverts to Mr. By-The-Book. He even once took Vladimir Horowitz to task for the subtle alterations he made to Liszt’s Valée d’Obermann, a laughable scolding as Horowitz’s recording of the work, from 1966, is considered masterful by all except the textual fetishists, and Brendel’s recording is all but forgotten – consigned to the dust bin of the complete reissue.

Those with actual taste, as opposed to the pretense of taste, have seen through Brendel’s ruse for years. If Godowsky was the pianist’s pianist, Horowitz the virtuoso’s virtuoso, and Rubinstein the Cavalier, then Brendel was the Accountant’s pianist.


Bernard Michael O'Hanlon said...

Bravo Hank - this is a tour de force! Best wishes, Bernard.

petra michaels said...

Excellent critique of Brendel, deserves wider readership!

lrldoit said...

I'm somewhere in the middle with Brendel. I thought his VOX set was pretty good and better than many and exceeded by several. I did not like his first Phillips sets of the Beethoven sonatas. His piano tone had become unattractive. This was rectified in his final set which was among the best I have heard.

I like a lot of pianists.

Artur Schnabel
Alfred Cortot
Dinu Lipatti
Edwin Fischer
Nearer to our time: Claudio Arrau & Wilhelm Kempff
Of course Rudolf Serkin

Brendel with all due respect is not there. Even Ashkenazy is not.

I'll close by saying that I appreciate your reviews and you helped me locate important Horowitz performances - a pianist I find fascinating, while not in sympathy with his approach