Pianist Arthur Schnabel, faced with the question: ‘Do you play with feeling or in time?’ replied, ‘Why shouldn’t I be feeling in time?’
Alfred Brendel spoke at Wolfson College, Oxford, for the Isaiah Berlin memorial lecture on Thursday 30th May. Brendel’s lecture was warm, light-hearted and insightful, and brought to life central musicological and performance issues in a personal, often quirky and humorous way.
Opening his talk with personal anecdotes about his friendship with Isaiah Berlin, he recalled the time they went to Bayreuth together. Whilst Isaiah was a Verdi and Rossini addict, he was never as keen on Wagner, saying to Brendel during one performance; ‘I just don’t understand redemption!’. Brendel performed a private concert for Berlin’s 88th and last birthday. Writing a letter of thanks, Isaiah Berlin spoke of Brendel’s sublime playing, saying that no man had ever celebrated his birthday in such a wonderful way.
It is due to Brendel that Schubert has been brought to the recognition that he has deservedly achieved in the 20th and 21st centuries. Brendel and Berlin shared this love of Schubert, Berlin saying in his 1996 interview on Private Passions that he wanted the second movement of Schubert’s D.959 sonata played at his memorial service. It was ultimately Brendel who carried out this wish at the Hampstead Synagogue in 1997, though he played the second movement of D.960 instead.
Brendel’s lecture took us through a snapshot of his forthcoming book, a Pianist’s Alphabet. His delivery matched the quality of his playing; that of utter clarity, understated performance where his love and most of all, respect for music, composers and the piano came through. He stressed the importance of pianists widening their repertoire, studying the instrumental and choral music of composers, not just their piano music, and maintained that a pianist who spreads the gospel of new music is worthy of the highest praise.
While his fingers tapped an imaginary keyboard on his knees, he was often critical of fellow performers whom he said did not fully respect and dedicate themselves to composers – their ‘father’. There should be more love in music; a pianist’s love of the piano, a performer’s love of the composer. The performer should be a prince with sleeping beauty, ’kissing’ the music awake. However, Brendel joked that whoever said ‘there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists’ was a devil of a piano salesman!