Born in Wiesenberg, Moravia (in the present-day Czech Republic), on 5 January 1931, Alfred Brendel hails from a diverse background -- both artistically and personally -- with family roots in Austrian, German, Italian, and Slavic ancestry. At the age of three, his family moved to Yugoslavia and it was there that he heard his first phonograph records, which he played for guests of his father's hotel (sometimes even singing along!). He began playing the piano at the age of six and went on to study piano, composition, and conducting in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and Graz, Austria. While continuing his piano studies and making his début as a pianist in 1948, Brendel also actively pursued his other interests, including painting, composing, and literature. At the time of this first recital (a rather serious affair entitled "The Fugue in Piano Literature" with pieces by Bach, Brahms, Liszt, and a double fugue of his own devising), a gallery in Graz was showing a one-man exhibition of his watercolours.
Of his musical beginnings and development he has modestly stated, "I did not come from a musical or intellectual family. ...I have not been a child prodigy. I do not have a photographic memory; neither do I play faster than other people. I am not a good sight reader. I need eight hours' sleep. I do not cancel concerts on principle, only when I am really sick. My career was so slow and gradual that I feel something is either wrong with me or with almost anybody else in the profession. Literature -- reading and writing -- as well as looking at art have taken up quite a bit of my time. When and how I should have learned all those pieces that I have played, besides being a less than perfect husband and father, I am at a loss to explain."
Though his formal piano lessons ended when he was sixteen, Brendel had studied with Paul Baumgartner and later attended masterclasses given by Eduard Steuermann and Edwin Fischer. By attending concerts in Vienna and listening to recordings of the leading musicians of the day, Brendel was able to supplement his own pianistic explorations and meditations with the insights of such masters as Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and Artur Schnabel; he has also expressed admiration for the conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, and Bruno Walter. He has shared his thoughts on and respect for both Fischer and Furtwängler in his essay writing.
After winning a prize in the 1949 Busoni Competition in Bolzano, Brendel
embarked on an international career. His solo recitals and appearances with the leading orchestras of the world make him a regular guest in London, Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, and Amsterdam, and at the major European and American festivals. Despite the many demands of his recording and concert schedules he also held master classes in Vienna between the years 1960 and 1970. Among his many professional and academic honours, he has won, often on more than one occasion, the Grand Prix of the Liszt Society, the Prix Mondial du Disque, the Edison Award, the Grand Prix des Disquaires, the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros, the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, the Wiener Flötenuhr, the Japanese Record Academy Award, and the Gramophone Award, as well as other press prizes from Belgium and Italy; he holds honorary degrees from
the universities of Oxford and Yale and an honorary KBE in 1989.
Brendel's first recordings served to confirm his increasing stature as a keyboard artist in the concert hall and made his performances available to listeners who otherwise would not have been able to hear him at all. During the 1960s he became the first pianist to record Beethoven's entire piano works, for the Vox label; ever dissatisfied with his "work-in-progress", he returned to Beethoven in the 1970s with a complete recorded cycle of the piano sonatas for Philips, now available in a boxed
set of 10 CDs (ADD). The 1982/83 season saw an even more remarkable
feat: 77 recitals in 11 cities in Great Britain, France, the United States,
Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, to sold out concert
halls, with complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. Not to be outdone,
even by himself, Brendel performed yet another series of the Beethoven
sonatas in the 1990s, again in venues throughout the world; the fresh insights
and experiences gleaned from this recent cycle are reflected in his second
recorded cycle of the sonatas for Philips, which was completed in late
1996 and is available either singly or in a second boxed set of 10 CDs
In addition to his familiar mastery of Beethoven, Brendel's repertoire
ranges from Bach to Schoenberg. He has taken a prominent role in establishing
Schubert's piano sonatas and Schoenberg's Piano Concerto in the concert
repertoire, as well as rekindling interest in the compositions of Liszt.
Following his tradition of Beethoven recitals, he performed Schubert's
mature piano works in Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States, and
Japan in 1987/88.
discography on the Philips label comprises solo and orchestral works
by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Liszt, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Schubert, Schumann,
and Weber. His set of recordings of Mozart's Complete Piano Concertos with
Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields is one
of the highlights of the Philips Classics Complete Mozart Edition, released
during 1990/91. Other releases in the 1990s include Brahms's Piano Concerto
No. 2 with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, sonatas by Haydn
and Beethoven, a Mozart
solo recital, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto with Michael Gielen, Schubert's
"Trout" Quintet and Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet, and a
new recording of Liszt's B minor Sonata, his Funérailles, and four
of Liszt's late pieces.
Alfred Brendel resides with his wife, Irene, in London, where they have been based since 1971. In addition to his performances and recording, he personally finds thinking and writing about music both refreshing and necessary; however he cautions that "I am always conscious of the fact that feeling must remain the Alpha and Omega of the musician." His two collections of writing, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Robson Books, 1976), and Music Sounded Out (Robson Books, 1990) exhibit the same intellectual rigour and sly wit as his essays at the piano keyboard. In between researching and preparing musical texts for performance, essay writing, recording sessions, and concert recitals, Brendel somehow manages to find time for his other artistic interests: exploring Romanesque and Baroque architecture; viewing Dada exhibitions; collecting masks, unintentional humour, and kitsch; and savouring the cartoons of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Gary Larson. Obviously a man of high humour, he has been known to ask, "Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious?" -- the title of an essay in Music Sounded Out first given as the Darwin Lecture at Cambridge in 1984 -- and lists "laughing" as his favourite occupation.