Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Retirement? Only performance-wise

From "The Times": Alfred Brendel on retiring from the concert hall and his books of poetry

The great pianist’s fingers may finally be in repose after his retirement last year at 78, but his pen is busy. He has now published two volumes of poems and talks about his inspiration and the importance of laughter in a ‘grotesque and absurd’ world

You can tell a lot about great musicians from their North London addresses. The flashier maestros — Sir Georg Solti when he was alive; André Previn when he lived in London — buy grand villas in St John’s Wood. Sir Colin Davis, the most unassuming of conductors, lives in a terrace house in rough-and-tumble Highbury. String quartets, by contrast, gravitate towards Golders Green, heartland of the chamber-music-loving Jewish community. And you can’t imagine Alfred Brendel living anywhere else except Hampstead — on one of those quiet lanes, meandering from the quaint bookshops to the Heath, that have been the haunt of generations of literati from Keats and the Freuds to Doris Lessing.

To describe Brendel as an intellectual is rather like describing Leonardo da Vinci as a good all-rounder. Honoured last week with the award of one of the world’s top cultural prizes, the Praemium Imperiale, he is a man who needs cerebral pursuits like a fish needs water. He’s best known, of course, as one of the finest pianists of our times. But many would say that the only positive aspect of his decision to retire from performing last December, at the age of 78, is that he has more time to write his wry and provocative essays, lectures and poems.

“I was quite ready to stop performing,” he says, in that precise, cultured voice that still sounds quintessentially Austrian after 40 years in Britain. “I intended to stop two years earlier, but was persuaded by friends to go on a bit longer. And although I shed tears easily when I listen to other people’s performances, I shed no tears in my last concerts — though I was very glad to have people crying on my shoulder. Unlike quite a few colleagues, I was never a concert addict. I had 60 years of performing and on the whole they went well. That was enough.”

Doesn’t he miss the applause? “No. I had a good fill of that. And I had a nice feeling about my last year: a sense of enormous warmth from the public wherever I went. That was satisfying. It gave me the impression that I didn’t play for nothing.” But if his fingers are in repose, his pen is not. Brendel’s gradual transformation from pianist to poet has been one of the quiet wonders of the age, and he now has two published collections to his name — One Finger Too Many (1998) and Cursing Bagels (2004) — mostly written in German and then translated into English (or reconceived, as Brendel prefers to say) with help from the scholar Richard Stokes.

“It was the greatest bonus of my later aesthetic life that this happened,” he says. “Writing poetry has enormously brightened my outlook. It is something productive, whereas as a musician I was reproductive: always trying to feel and understand what was already there.”

How and when did he start writing these poems? “More than a dozen years ago,” he replies. “But to be accurate, they started to write themselves. I was somehow involved, but I’m not quite sure how.” Had he ever written poetry before? “Well, when I was a teenager I wrote 124 sonnets,” he says casually — as if this is what you would expect any teenager to do. (He also mounted an exhibition of his own paintings at 17.) “Those sonnets cured me for life of being a formalist! But I didn’t expect to return to writing poetry at my age. I was on a plane to Japan when the poem about the third index finger happened [a typically surreal fantasy in which a pianist suddenly sprouts an extra digit]. The plane was dark, people were trying to sleep. I grabbed a piece of paper and made a note of it. When I got to Tokyo I looked at it again and thought, ‘Well, this is curious’. And so it started. Even now my poems still take me by surprise.”

How does he account for this sudden spurt of poetic creativity in his mid-sixties? “I cannot tell you,” he says. “But I’ve read a great deal in my life, and especially a huge amount of poetry when I was young. So perhaps this accumulated mass of words started to work by itself inside my head, and somehow sorted itself out. Many writers will tell you that the hypnagogic state [the transition between sleep and consciousness] is an important well of their creativity. That’s true for me. Sometimes between waking and sleeping a poem will form, and sometimes I wake up in the night and it goes on. Then I look at it in the morning and it seems to work. It’s the state between dreaming and waking that’s so interesting. You are both here and there.”

Brendel cites the late 19th-century German nonsense writer Christian Morgenstern (a Lewis Carroll figure with metaphysical overtones) as a prime influence. “He is the only grotesque poet of distinction in Germany. I loved to read his nonsense poems when I was younger — I know quite a few by heart. I don’t imitate him, but what we have in common is that he writes about the grotesque, and I certainly find the world grotesque and absurd. More so every day. He’s also graceful in his way he expresses things, and that also interests me. I believe that, in an absurd world, manners require that one is graceful.”

What is it that has led Brendel to conclude that life is grotesque and absurd? “The world has led me!” he declares. “Just observing what is going on.” But he sees some meaning in life, surely? “No. I remember my great friend Isaiah Berlin saying, ‘You ask me about the meaning of life? There is none’. One should live and hopefully fill one’s existence with things of interest. But why one lives is a question that is unanswerable.”

So Brendel has no religious instincts? “No. But I have great religious interests. Quite a few of my poems deal with gods and ghosts, buddhas and monsters, angels and devils and apparitions. But all this is a sort of mock-metaphysics. I deal with it because I observe many people for whom it’s a part of reality.”

Brendel’s career as a pianist was unusual from the beginning. Most great virtuosos start as child prodigies who are nurtured in a hothouse music conservatoire. Brendel, the son of an itinerant Austrian hotel manager and engineer, hardly heard any music during his early childhood (“My parents were not aesthetically minded,” he says drily), and was mostly self-taught at the piano after his mid-teens. “Also, it was wartime. I was 14 when the war ended [he was conscripted to dig trenches in Yugoslavia, where he got frostbite] and then came a period when I could study very little. I had to be on the road, so I could get away from the Russians. And then I had to get back when the Russians went home.

“With another background I probably would have developed much more quickly as a pianist. But with hindsight I am glad that it went as it did. I’m not an impatient person. When I was 20 I didn’t crave to be famous by the time I was 25. But I did want to achieve certain musical things by the time I was 50.” What Brendel achieved was a body of work — in the concert hall and on hundreds of CDs — that is without equal for combining superlative technical skills with intellectual cogency. Other pianists razzle and dazzle: Brendel always preferred to think his way to the music’s heart.

“I think the masterpiece should tell the performer what to do, not the per-former tell the composer what he should have composed.”

Brendel’s range was enormous: the Austro-German classics of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Brahms through to the complex works of Liszt and Schoenberg. But were there any famous composers with whom he felt that he wouldn’t get anywhere? “There were certainly some with whom I felt that I didn’t want to get anywhere,” he replies. “Rachmaninov, for instance — for me, it’s music for teenagers. He was a composer who knew his craft, who could invent large themes and was a great pianist. But for his time he was a reactionary. His music was not new enough. And for me the criterion of a masterpiece is whether it presents something that wasn’t there before.”

Brendel may have stopped playing in public, but his public appearances are hardly diminished. Now, however, he is giving poetry readings, masterclasses and lectures. One of his favourite lectures asks the question “Does classical music have to be entirely serious?” — which Brendel (who once declared that his favourite occupation was laughing) answers with a resounding no. But would he really like to hear laughter in, say, a piano recital? “Certainly. If you can’t make an audience laugh at the end of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 31 No 1, you should become an organist.”

And when he’s not speaking in public, he’s still writing — and preparing English versions of all his poems for the planned publication of his Collected Poems, on his 80th birthday in 2011. So the flow of words goes on? “Yes,” he replies. “But fortunately not at the rate of journalism.”

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