Despite His Credentials, Pianist Alfred Brendel's Wheeler Auditorium Talk Hits All the Wrong Notes

Photo: Piano man. Alfred Brendel, a famous pianist known for his writings on music as well as his musical ability, spoke at Wheeler Auditorium last Friday night in a Cal Performances event.
Cal Performances/Courtesy
Piano man. Alfred Brendel, a famous pianist known for his writings on music as well as his musical ability, spoke at Wheeler Auditorium last Friday night in a Cal Performances event.

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As part of their Strictly Speaking series, Cal Performances welcomed renowned pianist Alfred Brendel on Friday night to Wheeler Auditorium. The newly retired Brendel is a living legend, having performed on stage for 60 years and enjoyed a reputation as Britain's leading pianist. Still considered by some to be the greatest living pianist, the Austrian-born musician was the first to record all of Beethoven's piano compositions. He has written extensively on music in books and essays, contributes to The New York Review of Books and even has published collections of poetry. The man's resume is impressive. Sadly, his speech was a messy composition that remained out of tune.

In the introduction, before Brendel sat down at the piano, a selection from his humorously titled volume of poetry "One Finger Too Many" was read. The poem whimsically compares Beethoven to a baker, his creations as sweet as "late bagatelles" and "poppyseed cake." The reading set the wrong tone for the audience, who then expected an equally charming talk.

Once Brendel began speaking, the night took an entirely incoherent turn. The lecture titled "On Character in Music" made many uses of the word "character" but without proper contextualization. Characterizing the sonata, he described it as "humane, personal, and individual"-a place where both the the masculine and the feminine are used to work out a "detailed psychological problem," conveying "rapture, despair, sinking, love, solace and relief." That's a long list of emotions to impart in a single moment of music. If you've ever heard Beethoven's dramatic arrangements-or Brendel's performances-it's easy to recognize that a multitude of feelings are expressed.

Yet when the pianist turned himself on his seat to play some fragment from an opus, several things became evident. Brendel has an intimate relationship with the music that enables him to jump in at any moment with striking facility that few could ever master. But his lackluster communication and inability to effectively engage the audience before beginning a portion of some piece to demonstrate a point was matched with abrupt terminations that only furthered the disjointed aura of the evening. Since the focus of the talk itself was the emotional aspect of Beethoven's compositions, it would have been more effective for him to tone down the techno-talk and let the spirit emanate on its own. The virtuoso should have played more and spent less time dissecting what makes the art powerful. When he did play, it felt like the compositions were being dismembered.

If you came to the lecture without an extensive understanding of Beethoven, you certainly would have left confused. Sadly, many in the audience were falling asleep, which is all the worse since the talk did not even last the full 90 minutes indicated in the program. Perhaps a majority of attendees were misguided-even though it was part of the "Strictly Speaking" series, undoubtedly some were hopeful that they would get to hear more of the talent that made Brendel famous. Your heart couldn't help but go out to the retiree who was trying desperately to verbalize an incredible musical bond that simply cannot be expressed through words. Brendel demonstrated that even when he can break down the "genetic code for all the themes of all the movements," the pleasure derived from listening to his gift is far greater than listening to his deconstruction as to why it penetrates our core. Unfortunately, Brendel's lecture fell flatter than any note he's ever played.

Send more piano puns to Jennafer at [email protected]

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