Alfred Brendel, KBE

London, UK

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Alfred Brendel, KBE

Current Location:: London, UK
Birthplace: Wiesenberg, (now the Czech Republic), Northern Moravia
Immediate Family:

Husband of <private> Brendel (Semler)
Ex-husband of <private> Brendel (Gonzala)
Father of <private> Brendel; <private> Brendel; <private> Brendel and <private> Brendel

Occupation: Pianist, Author, Poet
Managed by: Terry Jackson (Switzer)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

    • <private> Brendel (Gonzala)
    • <private> Brendel
    • <private> Brendel (Semler)
    • <private> Brendel
    • <private> Brendel
    • <private> Brendel

About Alfred Brendel, KBE

Alfred Brendel


"If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he ought to have composed."

Alfred Brendel Alfred Brendel's place among the greatest musicians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is assured. Renowned for his masterly interpretations of the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Liszt, he is one of the indisputable authorities in musical life today and one of the very few living pianists whose name alone guarantees a sell-out anywhere in the world he chooses to play.

Yet Brendel had a most untypical start compared to most of his peers. He was not a child prodigy, his parents were not musicians, there was no music in the house and, as he admits himself, he is neither a good sight-reader nor blessed with a phenomenal memory.

His ancestors are a mixture of German, Austrian, Italian and Slav. He was born on 5 January 1931 at Wiesenberg, northern Moravia (now the Czech Republic) and spent his childhood travelling throughout Yugoslavia and Austria.

At various times his father worked as an architectural engineer, businessman and resort hotel manager on the Adriatic island of Krk. Here, young Alfred first encountered "more elevated" music. "I operated the record player which I wound up and put on the records for the guests of the hotel which were operetta records of around 1930 sung by Jan Kiepura. And I sang along and found it to be rather easy."*

His father then went to Zagreb and became the director of a cinema. Here Alfred Brendel was given his first piano lessons at the age of six from Sofia Dezelic (he also appeared at a children's theatre in Zagreb) and had a succession of early teachers as the family moved on, returning after the War to a place near Graz where Brendel pere worked in a department store.

Here Alfred studied at the Graz Conservatory with Ludovika von Kaan (who had studied with one of Liszt's more illustrious pupils, Bernhard Stavenhagen) as well as private composition lessons with Artur Michl, a local organist and composer. After the age of sixteen, the little formal training he had had came to an end. Apart from attending a few master classes he had no further teachers. To this day, Alfred Brendel regards his unconventional musical background as something of an advantage.

"A teacher can be too influential," he feels. "Being self-taught, I learned to distrust anything I hadn't figured out myself." More valuable than teachers was listening to other pianists, conductors and singers - and himself. Presented with a Revox tape-recorder (now an antediluvian machine but still in working order), Brendel learnt by recording the piece he was studying, listening to himself and reacting to it. "I still think that for young people today this is a very good way to get on," he says, "and it makes some of the functions of a teacher obsolete."*

Brendel gave his first public recital in Graz age 17, boldly entitled 'The Fugue in Piano Literature' with works by Bach, Brahms and Liszt. "It consisted," he recalls, "only of piano works with fugues and of four encores which also contained fugues. “ One of these pieces was a sonata of my own with a double fugue, of course. At that time I composed polyphonic pieces with great pleasure, and a habit to listen to all voices implied in a composition has stayed with me."*

As well as his musical activities, Brendel also pursued his other interests, including painting, composing and literature, of which literature become his second professional occupation. At the time of his first recital there was a one-man exhibition of his water-colours in a Graz gallery. But in 1949 he won fourth prize in the prestigious Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Italy. It was enough to launch his career as a performing musician.

He then toured throughout Europe, slowly, unspectacularly building his career, and participating in a few masterclasses of Paul Baumgartner, Eduard Steuermann (a pupil of Busoni and Schoenberg, and who gave many first performances of the latter's work) and, most importantly, the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. He, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff can be said to have had most influence on Brendel's playing.

Brendel remembers, "When I was young my overall career wasn't sensational at all, it rather progressed step by step. But then, one day I was performing a Beethoven programme in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

It was quite an unpopular programme, I didn't even like it much myself and the next day I got three offers from record companies. It seemed really rather grotesque, like a slow, hardly noticeable rise on a thermometer or a kettle warming water suddenly beginning to boil and to bubble and the steam comes out."*

During the 1950s he made his first recordings. These served to confirm his stature as an authoritative keyboard artist and, during the 1960s, became the first pianist ever to record the entire piano works of Beethoven (on the Vox label), a set which, in the opinion of one critic, contains 'some of the finest Beethoven ever recorded'. In the 1970s, Brendel returned to Beethoven with a complete cycle of the piano sonatas on the Philips label for which he now recorded exclusively.

During the 1982-83 season he presented cycles of all 32 Sonatas in the course of 77 recitals in 11 cities throughout Europe and America. No pianist since the legendary Artur Schnabel forty years before had played the complete Beethoven Sonatas at Carnegie Hall. It was a venture he repeated throughout the world during the 1990s and a third recorded cycle of all the Beethoven Sonatas was completed in 1996.

Three years later saw the appearance of new recordings of all five Beethoven Piano Concertos in an acclaimed partnership with Sir Simon Rattle and the Wiener Philharmoniker. In 1999, Carnegie Hall invited him to be musician in residence with an unprecedented series of seven events in a variety of roles - solo recitalist, Lieder collaborator, chamber musician, orchestral soloist and performer of his own poems. To mark his 70th birthday in 2001, Alfred Brendel performed in a series of residences at prestigious concert halls in cities throughout the world, including Vienna, London, Paris and Tokyo.

Brendel's discography is now among the most extensive of any pianist, reflecting a repertoire of solo and orchestral works that ranges from Bach and Haydn to Weber to Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Mussorgsky and Schoenberg.

He is one of the few pianists to have recorded all of the Mozart piano concertos (with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields). As well as playing a prominent role in championing Schubert's Piano Sonatas, he has recorded two complete cycles of his mature piano works, 1822-28, as well as establishing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto in the concert repertoire. During the 1990s, Brendel releases included Brahms' Second Piano Concerto (with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic), sonatas by Haydn, Mozart solo recitals, as well as a new recording of Liszt's B minor Sonata, Funerailles and four late pieces. To celebrate his 65th birthday in 1996, Philips released a 25-disc boxed set entitled The Art of Alfred Brendel.

In the first years of this century, he recorded 8 of Mozart’s concertos with Sir Charles Mackerras, cooperated with Matthias Goerne in two Schubert discs, and played all of Beetohoven’s works for piano and cello with his son Adrian. Recently, in a double CD series, he has selected some of this own favourites on record including a number of live performaces from the BBC; this series is called ‘Artist’s Choice’.

What sort of man is he, this apparently austere, intellectual musician who has dedicated his life to the cornerstones of the piano repertoire? Sir Simon Rattle recalls that "I was right at the beginning of my twenties when I first worked with him and he's since become a very good friend. But I can remember the first performance just thinking what he is asking me to do is so difficult and is such a stretch. I really despaired at one point that I would ever be able to. Nowadays what he asks is just bloody difficult instead of completely impossible and we've done so much together that I think we understand each other's rhythms."*

Since 1971, he and his wife Irene have made their home in London. "His inspiration comes from art and then from painting and from literature, from being inside himself rather than extending himself out except when he plays as a performer. I think he lives with his very strong sense of the time he still has to achieve what he wants to achieve and he is very economical with his forces and his energies. He wants to use them for what he seriously wants to do."*

Marie-Francoise Bucquet, a friend of the Brendels, goes further. "I think he is very strong and at the same time he's very afraid of his emotions like all people who have very strong emotions. When he was younger I think there was a turmoil in him - there was more than that. There was a fire which he was afraid to show and which came out in his playing. Now I find that he is more and more reconciled. I think he has integrated the person he wanted to be. The Mozart playing nowadays is for me the proof that he has become very natural. He can express himself, there is no barrier now between the person he is and the person who goes on stage."*

Unusually tall for a pianist (he has suffered from back problems in the past), with his trademark heavy spectacles and high forehead accentuated by a central raft of wayward swept back hair, Brendel's is one of the most instantly recognisable faces of any musician. With his famous facial grimaces in performance and frequently bandaged fingers, Brendel's art is a byword for perfection, profundity, self-effacement and textual illumination. There is, on the surface, nothing that is flip or casual about him. Yet look at almost every photograph and his eyes are either twinkling mischievously or raised in quizzical amusement.

Brendel's extra-musical interests manifest another side to the single-minded purveyor of the central European piano repertoire, ranging from Romanesque churches and Baroque architecture to Dada and Edward Gorey, from Shakespeare to nonsense verse and the cartoons of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Gary Larson.

He is fascinated with the grotesque and the fantastic, and collects kitsch, primitive masks and newspaper bloopers. "He and his wife really have a large circle of friends," observes one of them, Professor Bernard Williams, "people who do lots of different things and one sees a lot of interesting people, and he gives everybody a lot not just by his playing but by his conversation and by the kind of friendship he offers. But I think he gets quite a lot out of it too. There's a saying that he's rather fond of, that 'Humour is the sublime in reverse'. I think that does catch an aspect of his thought. He thinks that, as it were, certain kinds of jokes, certain kinds of paradox are actually the deepest way of representing important things."* Listing "laughing" as his favourite occupation, his 1984 Darwin Lecture at Cambridge University dealt with the subject "Does classical music have to be entirely serious?" and his playing shows a rare talent for highlighting unexpected elements of humour, particularly in Haydn and Beethoven.

Writing is a constant source of inspiration and expression for Alfred Brendel. He has published two collections of articles and lectures: Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts Robson Books, (1976) and Music Sounded Out Robson Books, (1990) full of the same intellectual rigour and sly wit that he brings to his keyboard playing. Recently, all his essays have been gathered in “Alfred Brendel on Music” (new edition, JR Books 2007). A book of conversations with Martin Mayer, “The Veil of Order” (in the US: “Me of all people”) was published by Faber in 2002.

“One Finger Too Many”, has seen him depart from his usual role as a music essayist in a volume of absurd poetry. A second poetry selection in English is called “Cursing Bagels”. The literary press has praised his work on its own merit, setting aside his musical renown. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung lauded his writings as "a collection of texts which can be numbered among the sparse ranks of genuinely comic literature and which make their author possibly 'immortal"'.

"I am not exclusively a musician, as the past few years have clearly shown," says Brendel. "I now lead a kind of double life. There has been an upsurge of my literary life with frequent poetry readings and Collected Poems in German and French. I am looking forward to my retirement from the stage to do more writing and lecturing”.

Among the countless prizes he has won (sometimes on more than one occasion) are the Grand Prix of the Liszt Society, the Gramophone Award, Grand Prix du Disque, the Japan Record Academy Award, the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, the Grand Prix de l'Academie du Disque Francais, the Edison Prize and the British Music Trades Association Prize to name but a few. Important musical awards include the Léonie Sonning Prize, the Siemens Prize and the Prix Venezia. He holds honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford and Yale and was made an honorary KBE in 1989.

He is a recipient of the Hans von Bilow medal of the Berlin Philharmonic and in December 1998, he was made an honorary member of the Wiener Philharmoniker. Since this orchestra's foundation in 1842, it is an honour that has been conferred on only two other pianists, Emil von Sauer and Wilhelm Backhaus.

On 26 April 1998, Alfred Brendel celebrated 50 years of public performances. As he approached this next significant milestone in his eventful life, what of the future? "There have been in my career periods where I concentrated mainly on one particular composer. Not long ago there has been an extended Beethoven period, now in these years I feel that I should turn my attention to Mozart and particularly to his Sonatas, even if they are 'too difficult for artists while too easy for children' as Schnabel has so admirably said. I told myself that if I don't try to make sense of them now it may be too late."*

  • from Alfred Brendel - Man and Mask, a Rosetta Pictures production for the BBC and ZDF in association with ARTE.

Jeremy Nicholas revised April 2008


From Wikipedia

Alfred Brendel KBE (born 5 January 1931) is an Austrian pianist, born in Czechoslovakia and a resident of the United Kingdom. He is also a poet and author.


Brendel was born in Wiesenberg, Czechoslovakia, now Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic, to a non-musical family. They moved to Zagreb when Brendel was six, and later to Graz, where they lived during World War II, towards the end of which the 14-year old Brendel was sent to Yugoslavia to dig trenches. However, he developed frostbite and was taken to hospital. Brendel began piano lessons when he was six with Sofija Deželić, and at 14 he studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan and composition in the Graz Conservatory for the next two years, but otherwise had little formal music education.

After the war, Brendel composed music, as well as continuing to play the piano and to paint. However, he never had more formal piano lessons and although he attended masterclasses with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, he was largely self-taught.

Brendel gave his first public recital in Graz at the age of 17.[1] He called it "The Fugue In Piano Literature", and as well as fugal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, it included some of Brendel's own compositions. However, he gave up composing shortly after this to concentrate on the piano. In 1949 he won 4th prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy and moved to Vienna the following year. At the age of 21, he made his first record, Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5. He went on to make a string of other records, including three complete sets of the Ludwig van Beethoven piano sonatas (one on Vox Records and two on Philips Records). He was the first performer to record the complete solo piano works of Beethoven.[2] He has also recorded works by Liszt, Brahms (including Brahms' concertos), Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Unlike most classical pianists, Brendel has recorded very little by Frédéric Chopin other than the polonaises. An important collection of Alfred Brendel is the complete Mozart piano concertos recorded with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which is included in the Phillips 180 CD complete Mozart Edition.

Brendel recorded extensively for the Vox label, providing them his first of three sets of the complete Beethoven sonatas. He did not secure a major recording contract until the 1970s, nor did he play much outside Austria. His breakthrough came after a recital of Beethoven at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the day after which three major record labels called his agent. Around this time he moved to Hampstead, London, where he still resides.[1] Since the 1970s, Brendel has recorded for Philips Classics Records.[3]

Brendel has been married twice. His first marriage, from 1960 to 1972, was to Iris Heymann-Gonzala, and they had a daughter, Doris. In 1975, Brendel married Irene Semler, and the couple have three children; a son, Adrian, who is a cellist, and two daughters, Katharina and Sophie.[4]

In April 2007, Brendel was one of the initial signatories of the "Appeal for the Establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations".[5]

In 2009, Brendel was featured in the award-winning German-Austrian documentary Pianomania, about a Steinway & Sons piano tuner, which was directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. The film premiered theatrically in North America, where it was met with positive reviews by The New York Times[6], as well as in Asia and throughout Europe, and is a part of the Goethe-Institut catalogue.


Brendel is regarded as one of the most thoughtful interpreters of classical Germanic works by such composers as Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. He plays relatively few 20th century works, but is closely associated with Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. Toward the end of his concert career he stopped playing many of the most physically demanding pieces in the repertoire, such as the Hammerklavier Sonata of Beethoven, owing to problems with arthritis.

Critical reaction to Brendel's playing has been mixed. While he has been lauded by Michael Steinberg as "the new Schnabel", critic Harold C. Schonberg noted that some critics and specialists accused the pianist of "pedanticism".[7] Brendel's playing is sometimes described as being "cerebral",[8] and he has said that he believes the primary job of the pianist is to respect the composer's wishes without showing off himself, or adding his own spin on the music:

"I am responsible to the composer, and particularly to the piece".[4]

As well as his former mentor and teacher, Edwin Fischer, he cites Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences.

In recent years, Brendel has worked with younger pianists such as Paul Lewis, Mark Gasser, Roberto Carnevale, Andrew von Oeyen, Till Fellner and, most recently, Kit Armstrong.[9] He has also performed in concert and recorded with his son Adrian.[10]

In November 2007, Brendel announced that he would retire from the concert platform after his concert of 18 December 2008 in Vienna, which featured him as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat; the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.[2] His final concert in New York was at Carnegie Hall on 20 February 2008, with works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Since his debut at the Carnegie Hall on 21 January 1973 he has appeared there 81 times, and in 1983 he became only the second pianist to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas at the Hall.

Brendel has been Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music since 1972.[11]


Brendel is also a published poet and author.[12] His books include:

Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Essays) (1976) Music Sounded Out (1990) One Finger Too Many (Poetry) (1998) Alfred Brendel on Music (collected essays) (2001) Me, of All People: Alfred Brendel in Conversation with Martin Meyer (2002) (UK edition: The Veil of Order) Cursing Bagels (Poetry) (2004)


Honorary Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE; 1989) Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford Sonning Award (2002; Denmark) Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (2004) Praemium Imperiale (2009)[13]


Main article: Alfred Brendel discography Alfred Brendel - Unpublished Live and Radio Performances 1968-2001 Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Alfred Brendel III


1.^ a b "Brendel, Alfred", Grove Music Online, 2007. Accessed 3 June 2007. 2.^ a b Charlotte Higgins (21 November 2007). "Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career". London: The Guardian.,,2214378,00.html. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 3.^ Anthony Holden (8 January 2006). "Alfred Brendel, A Personal 75th Birthday Selection". London: The Observer.,,1681512,00.html. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 4.^ a b Nicholas Wroe (5 October 2002). "Keeper of the flame". London: The Guardian.,,804868,00.html. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 5.^ "Featured Signatories", Campaign for a UN Parliament, 2007. Accessed 5 January 2011. 6.^ {{cite news | url= 7.^ The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present, Harold C. Schonberg, Simon & Schuster, Second Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-671-63837-8 8.^ Tom Service (16 June 2003). "Alfred Brendel (Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk)". London: The Guardian.,,978109,00.html. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 9.^ Stephen Plaistow (15 December 2008). "'I've had a lot of fun' Alfred Brendel talks to Stephen Plaistow about inspirations, aching limbs and mastering Mozart". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 14 June 2010. 10.^ Andrew Clements (1 July 2003). "Adrian and Alfred Brendel (Wigmore Hall, London)". The Guardian.,,988659,00.html. Retrieved 24 November 2007. 11.^ "Honorary Members of the Royal Academy of Music (Oct.14, 2009)". Royal Academy of Music. 14 October 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2009. 12.^ Alfred Brendel (27 March 2004). "Hymns, Pianos and Laughing Angels". London: The Guardian.,,1179003,00.html. Retrieved 21 November 2007. 13.^ Morrison, Richard (3 October 2009). "Alfred Brendel on retiring from the concert hall and his books of poetry". The Times (London). Retrieved 23 April 2010.

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Alfred Brendel, KBE's Timeline

January 5, 1931
(now the Czech Republic), Northern Moravia