Mr Brendel’s life’s work should be celebrated

The above letter appeared in the September/October issue of International Piano magazine. I felt compelled to respond thus, and my letter appears in the November/December issue:

I cannot let Mr Erauw’s simplistic and frankly disrespectful letter in issue No. 51 concerning Alfred Brendel go unchallenged. Although now retired from the concert stage, Mr Brendel is a highly regarded pianist whose performances and recordings of the core of the classical canon – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt – are considered amongst the finest, and whose thoughtful writing on composers, music and the exigencies of the pianist’s life is intelligent and considered, the result of a lifetime spent with this music. Mr Erauw may not like Brendel’s playing, but that does not warrant such an unpleasant attack on the man, particularly while he is still alive – nor on his protégé Paul Lewis, a respected artist in his own right.

Mr Erauw seems to regard piano playing as some kind of Olympic sport where those who play the most, the widest repertoire, or who triumph in piano competitions are considered the “greats”. Brendel chose to devote himself to a relatively small corner (but by no means “narrow” if one considers the huge variety and complexities of writing by those composers with whom he is most closely associated) of the repertoire because these were the composers to whom he presumably felt the closest affinity. Many other “great” pianists have chosen this route and are renowned for their interpretations of, for example, Bach (Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff) or Mozart (Mitsuko Uchida, Maria Joao Pires). Some pianists choose to devote a lifetime to performing and recording the works of only a handful of composers, with whom they feel a particular connection or affection, often revisiting works in concert series and recordings, in the knowledge that one never plays the same thing twice, and to offer a fresh perspective as one’s interpretation matures or changes over time. Such a long-standing intimacy gives one deep insights into the music and soundworld of that particular composer or composers, and as such these pianists’ interpretations and performances are often highly prized. Such is the case with Alfred Brendel.

Nowadays children and young artists are encouraged to play everything (and earlier and earlier) in the belief that this is what audiences and concert promoters crave. Personally, I am not convinced that having a huge variety of repertoire in one’s fingers necessarily brings insightful or compelling performances, but rather superficial Olympian displays of pianism and “style over substance”.

Mr Brendel’s life’s work should be celebrated and respected while he’s still with us.

Frances Wilson, October 2018

10 Comments

  1. Admittedly, Brendel’s playing is, for many an acquired taste, and one which I have come to appreciate after much listening to his recordings and reading his writings about the repertoire. And, while we’re at it, why has the ability to perform Rach3 become a standard for pianistic excellence? Many young pianists can bash their way through it without having the slightest ability to play or interpret successfully works like the last five Beethoven sonatas, which Alfred Brendel plays magnificently!

  2. Well said you! I must confess I was never a fan of Mr. Brendels playing. However, he was/is a masterful pianist. If he is not to everyones taste, it in no way diminishes the scope of his accomplishments, the depth of his talent or his place in the annals of great pianists. The letter from Mr. Erauw should never have been published by International Piano. The measure of pianism is not the ability to play Russian music loud and fast. That’s just absurd. Underlying Mr. Erauws screed, I suspect, are Russian nationalist sympathies which have no place in that magazine, the musical world or any other venue.

  3. Not to mention that AB was not just a hugely accomplished concert artist, but also a superb accompanist, as is PL now. The only pair able to surpass AB and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Winterreise is the recent partnership of Lewis and Mark Padmore, possibly the most perfect recording of any music ever, and requisite of a completely different temperament and skill set than Russian repertoire. It is one of my life’s great sadnesses that I will never get to hear AB in concert. I might also add that PL handles himself with great aplomb (as does AB) in Pictures – possibly the most interpretatively challenging work in the “Russian repertoire”, so given to parody, pastiche, and pantomime – and much more dignity than, say, Horowitz ever did in the same work, with all his twists and manipulations. For balance, I will say that Lewis’ latest release of Haydn sonatas leaves me cold – if the complainant wishes to paint PL as an AB “copycat”, he needs no further evidence that Lewis is his own man than the difference in approach between these two in Haydn, eg. the 3rd movement of Hob. XVI:50.

  4. Thank you for such a reasoned response. Brendel’s early recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition” brings a coherence to the work that has never been matched. His early recording of “Islamey” is a remarkable performance in every respect, including technically. Comments about the sophistication of the original letter writer are not needed, as the level of dignity, reflection and insight are fully obvious. Again, I appreciate your response, Fran.

  5. I completely and warmly agree with your more than justified reply and reassessment of one of the major musician — not only pianist! — of our time. It might be useful to unscrupulous and ignorant detractors to remember than, early in the fifties of the last century, A.B. started his career with Prokofiev (Piano Concerto n°5), Stravinsky (Petrushka), Moussorgsky (Pictures of an exhibition), and, in the sixties, even Chopin (Polonaises). As to consider the whole repertoire of A.B., it is completely absurd to think of its supposed narrowness….Bach Italian Concerto etc., Haydn Sonatas, Mozart the whole Sonatas & Concertos, Beethoven the whole Sonatas, Piano Variations, Concertos, Cello Sonatas, Schubert Sonatas, Mendelssohn, Schumann Piano Concerto, Kreisleriana, Fantaisie op. 17, Fantasiestücke, Kinderszene, Works for piano & oboe with Heinz Holliger, Liszt Concertos, Todtentanz, Malediction, Years of Pilgrimage, Harmonies poétiques & religieuses, Variations, Paganini Studies, Brahms Ballades, Variations op. 18 & Haendel, Concertos, Busoni Elegies, Ciaccona, Berg Sonata, Schönberg Concerto, etc. etc. Is this too few? There is a french formula that is good to remind of : “Il faut toujours tourner sa langue sept fois dans sa bouche avant de parler… et tourner sept fois sa plume dans l’encrier avant d’écrire….” [It is always necessary to think before speaking … and to turn seven times its feather in the inkwell before writing…]

  6. And, Frances, thank you for not letting the above letter go unchallenged. I had not seen it but now I have , I am very glad for your response to it.

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Frances. It is indeed a ridiculous letter and it sounds like the person who wrote it has a bee in his bonnet. As for Paul Lewis and Rach 3, where does this comment come from and anyway not sure yet the relevance to any of it..but I might as well mention that the most memorable Rach 3 I ever heard was from Paul Lewis….it was very timely and had huge impact at the time. Will never forget it !

      • It is so nasty, and well done to you. And huge thank you on behalf of us all just trying and wanting to share and be honest to the music and do the best we can to keep it alive, and our integrity, I just read the letter again, and I can’t get my head around how uneducated it is and immature as well as nasty and ridiculous. You have replied above to it in such a considered , wise and understanding way and invited all the good and informed comments from your readers here. Thank you for that. It is so important.

  8. Bravo, Fran, well put. The original letter was offensive, and I can’t think why the magazine published it, apart from a self-serving desire to get tongues wagging. As a lifelong admirer of Brendel, thanks for “setting the record straight”!

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