qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

As simple as possible, but no simpler

Book Review: Alfred Brendel on Music - Collected Essays, by Alfred Brendel
Assembling an essay collection must be a tricky task: are readers expected to read cover to cover, or to dip in at random? How should the essays be sorted? Does the author or compiler have a 'right of reply' in areas in which he does not agree, or has since changed his mind? Brendel's essays are arranged chronologically - by theme or subject, not in the order they were written. This is a logical choice for a classical musician: it's certainly how my CD collection tends to be sorted. So we start with Mozart, progress through Beethoven and Schubert, to Liszt, Busoni and Schoenberg, rounding off with some essays on teachers, performers and ancillary matters, plus three interview transcripts.

He discusses the rigorous task of the performer to seek out the Urtext score (it seems that there is a strong correlation for historic composers to be abysmal proof-readers, so that discrepancies between manuscripts and early editions abound considerably), and how this should be presented, musically, to an audience. Two essays are devoted to the nature of musical humour, which can be both bawdy and also elevated (but not at the same time). The most intimidating essay, at over 50 pages, is on Schubert's last sonatas. It's not surprising that Brendel has a lot to say: I think I first came across him on TV playing Schubert and he must be one of the composers Brendel is best known for performing. The defensive tone of some of the essays on Liszt comes as a surprise: apparently Liszt was much out of favour in Vienna and central Europe for much of the twentieth century. I admit to knowing little of his work, primarily because of the infeasibility of my playing any of it. (Of course, like everyone else I know the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but not other significant works such as the Sonata or the Années de pèlegrinage). The last few essays in the book show more of Brendel's personal character: Coping with Pianos, A Case for Live Recordings and On Recitals and Programmes all describe different challenges the performer faces in his interaction with the audience.

The three interviews - more dialogues, really - are also interesting. In particular, Bach and the Piano discusses the reasons that Brendel rarely performs Bach, but describes the various functions that have to be fulfilled in playing his work on the piano.

The style is throughout authoritative and intimate: technical where necessary, but always very readable. Brendel is always gracious but does not shy away from criticising or disagreeing where he feels it appropriate. It's not light reading, but it is a rewarding compendium of 50 years of musical thought.
Tags: books, music
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