To look at him, you might think Alfred Brendel was the very picture of the Serious Classical Musician. And, to a certain extent, you would be right. After all, you don't sell millions of recordings and concert tickets over 60 years by taking your art lightly. But then you notice the twinkle in his eye, which means that he's just about to say something straight out of a Monty Python routine. Alfred Brendel may be a truly great pianist, but he is also a collector of classic kitsch and a published writer of absurdist comic poetry, which means that his upcoming lecture/recital in Berkeley on "character" in Beethoven's music will reveal some of what makes him a "character" as well.
Brendel certainly knows Beethoven; he has recorded all 32 of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas three times, and the five Piano Concertos twice. He is recognized as one of the world's great experts on Beethoven, but what makes what he has to say so interesting is that he didn't get to this point in the music world by the usual path. He came from a completely unmusical family, and was mostly self-taught as a pianist. He had a few years of lessons as a boy and later took some master classes, but he got the bulk of his musical education on his own: working his way through each piece by recording himself and then listening to the playback and gauging his own reaction. He had no mentor who passed down the wisdom of generations on The Right Way to Play Beethoven -- he found the right way himself in the notes.
And that's what he means by "character" in music: like an actor who finds the character in the words and subtext, a musician finds the character of a piece in the notes, and the character and atmosphere are just as important as the form and structure. Beethoven himself was a character: a man-about-town with a dry sense of humor in his youth, he became a grump and a slob after losing his hearing, but he somehow kept his sense of humor in his music, using the contrasts of humor, pain and tenderness to help break down the barriers of form and structure. This is where Brendel excels in his playing: getting to the essence of a piece emotionally and intellectually, without letting either one take over. It's a rare gift, and that's why hearing what he has to say about what he plays is such a treat. He might even read some of his poetry.
Alfred Brendel speaks On Character In Music Friday, October 30, 2009 at 8pm, Wheeler Auditorium, U.C. Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit calperfs.berkeley.edu.