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Alfred Brendel (Photo: Philips Benjamin Ealovega)

In January of 2009 (on the 5th), pianist Alfred Brendel celebrated his 78th birthday. He did not celebrate by playing in public. It’s official: Brendel has retired — and in the view of many, at the height of his career. Late last year, Brendel gave his final bow 90 miles and 60 years from where his career had begun.

Brendel was born in 1931 in what is now the Czech Republic. His family wasn’t particularly musical. His father was an architect who gave up his profession to move to a resort area of Yugoslavia and run a hotel. The young Alfred amused guests by singing along to opera records on the hotel’s phonograph.

From there the family moved to Zagreb to manage a cinema. There, at the age of 6, Alfred began taking piano — more because it was the thing for kids to do than because his parents thought he had any particular talent.

Five years on, though, it was already clear that Alfred Brendel was no ordinary kid when it came to music.

The Brendels moved again, this time to Graz, Austria. Brendel continued his study at the Graz Academy of Music. He graduated in 1947. The following year he gave his first public recital in Graz, playing Bach, Brahms and Liszt. Brendel was only 17 years old.

He won a difficult and prestigious competition two years later, but that didn’t fill seats at Brendel’s performances. This was still the era of the showy virtuoso. Audiences flocked to see pianists who put on grand shows, and stamped the works they played with their own highly individual interpretations. That wasn’t for Brendel. Instead, he saw himself as a conduit for the composer’s musical intent.

It took decades, but finally the value of his approach as a “thinking pianist” gained him recognition and admiration. Over those years Brendel never gave up playing in public as Glenn Gould did — far from it — but he did find great rewards in making recordings.

Brendel was the first to record all of Beethoven’s piano music (for Vox, in the early 1960s; many of these recordings, including the sonatas, are still available to this day). He revisited these works as his interpretations (and recording technology) matured. In the mid-1990s Brendel became the only pianist to record the complete piano works of Beethoven three times. Brendel is also highly regarded for his interpretations of Haydn and Mozart, and for his efforts in reawakening interest in the sonatas of Franz Schubert.

Brendel moved to London in 1972. Since then he’s been more selective in his teaching, but four of his best pupils heard him play his last concert.

It was on the 18th of December (2008), not in London, but in Vienna’s glittering Musikverein. Another noted Mozart interpreter, Sir Charles Mackerras, was there to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic as Brendel played a Mozart concerto.

Did he go out with the 27th, Mozart’s last? Not on your life. Perhaps the 77 year old Brendel had a twinkle in his eye as he played the concerto Mozart composed as a 21 year old, the 9th, the one nicknamed “Jeunehomme” — “The Young Man.”

And when he had finished, Brendel smiled and gestured toward Kit Armstrong, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner, and Paul Lewis — his most noted students, all there in the Musikverein, there for his farewell. Perhaps he was saying to them, “Now it’s your turn.”

Further reading:

Brendel bows out with a shrug and a smile in Vienna in The Guardian

Alfred Brendel’s Biography in Musicians’ Guide

This article was originally published on 5 January 2009.

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