Entertainment Music

Monday 26 February 2018

Bagels and Beethoven: the return of Alfred the great absurdist

Cursing bagels would be an unlikely starting point for a consideration of one of the greatest pianists of modern times. But then, not every great pianist writes poetry.

Cursing Bagels is one of three collections of the works of Alfred Brendel, the title carrying a hint of the artist's admiration of the absurd, not to say anarchic, which doesn't exactly sit easily with his reputation as a meticulous interpreter of the keyboard compositions of the giants of the First Viennese School -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

An earlier collection was One Finger Too Many, its title inspired by the wacky notion of how an extra digit would be a welcome addition to the performer's paraphernalia.

Then, he'd be able to carry on playing while simultaneously admonishing the likes of "the Coughers of Cologne", "the New York Sneezers" and "the London Whistlers", the bane of every concert performer's existence.

But then that's where Alfred Brendel comes in -- the perfectionist, the artist par excellence, who for more than 60 years delighted audiences the world over. And still does, courtesy of an enormous catalogue of recordings, not to mention the talks he gives at the age of 80.

It shouldn't surprise that there is an element of the unconventional about him, for his background was unusual for one who has soared so high.

He was born in what is now part of the Czech Republic, but his father's chequered career meant the family moved around a lot. It was while Brendel senior was managing a hotel on the Croatian island of Krk that his young son discovered music. When they moved on to Zagreb, father fixed him up with piano lessons.

They weren't there long. Dad was off again, to a job in a department store in Graz in Austria.

Alfred enrolled in the conservatory there, but it was a short stay. At the age of 16, in the year that the actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in Graz, the young Brendel set out on his own musical path.

He'd go to concerts, listen to whoever he could, and with the help of an ancient tape recorder, he'd also cast an ear over his own performances, and be his own harshest critic.

His professional career was a slow burner, but a Beethoven concert in London would change that. "It was quite an unpopular programme," he recalls on his website. "I didn't even like it much myself." But the next day he got offers from three record companies, and he was on his way.

That was in 1951. Alfred Brendel eventually closed the lid on his concert grand in 2008, but he's still going strong, and those talks of his are always illustrated with a snippet or two from the keyboard.

One Finger Too Many and Cursing Bagels are published by Faber & Faber

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning


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