Brendel was born in Wiesenberg (now Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic) to a non-musical family. They moved to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when Brendel was six, and later to Graz, Austria. Towards the end of World War II, the 14-year old Brendel was sent back to Yugoslavia to dig trenches. Brendel began piano lessons when he was six with Sofija Deželić, and later studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan at the Graz Conservatory and composition with Artur Michel.
After the war, Brendel composed music, as well as continuing to play the piano, to write and to paint. However, he never had more formal piano lessons and, although he attended master classes with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, he was largely self-taught after the age of six.
Brendel gave his first public recital in Graz at the age of 17. He called it "The Fugue in Piano Literature", and as well as fugal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, it included a sonata of Brendel's own composition. However, he gave up composing shortly after this to concentrate on the piano. In 1949 he won a prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy and moved to Vienna the following year.
At the age of 21, in 1952, he made his first record, Franz Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum (that work's world premiere recording). His first concerto recording, Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 had happened the year before. He went on to make a string of other records, including three complete sets of the Ludwig van Beethoven piano sonatas (one on Vox Records and two on Philips Records). He was the first performer to record the complete solo piano works of Beethoven. He has also recorded works by Liszt, Brahms (including Brahms' concertos), Robert Schumann and particularly Franz Schubert. An important collection of Alfred Brendel is the complete Mozart piano concertos recorded with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which is included in the Philips 180 CD complete Mozart Edition.
Brendel recorded extensively for the Vox label, providing them his first of three sets of the complete Beethoven sonatas. His breakthrough came after a recital of Beethoven at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the day after which three major record labels called his agent. Around this time he moved to Hampstead, London, where he still resides. Since the 1970s, Brendel has recorded for Philips Classics Records. One of the most successful pianists internationally, he completed many tours in Europe, the United States, South America, Japan and Australia. He had a particularly close association with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but played regularly with all major orchestras in the US and elsewhere. Brendel has performed many cycles of the Beethoven Sonatas and Concertos, and was one of the few pianists who, in later years, could continue to fill large halls.
Brendel has been married twice. His first marriage, from 1960 to 1972, was to Iris Heymann-Gonzala, and they had a daughter, Doris. In 1975, Brendel married Irene Semler, and the couple have three children; a son, Adrian, who is a cellist, and two daughters, Katharina and Sophie.
In April 2007, Brendel was one of the initial signatories of the "Appeal for the Establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations".
In 2009, Brendel was featured in the award-winning German-Austrian documentary Pianomania, about a Steinway & Sons piano tuner, which was directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. The film premiered theatrically in North America, where it was met with positive reviews by The New York Times, as well as in Asia and throughout Europe, and is a part of the Goethe-Institut catalogue.
In November 2013 Brendel was the guest for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. His choices were Handel's "Al lampo dell' armi (from Giulio Cesare), Bach's Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056 (2nd movement), Mozart's "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" (from Idomeneo), Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in D major, (Op. 20/4) (4th movement), Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1st movement), Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor (3rd movement), Mahler's "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" (from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) and Schoenberg's String Trio, Op. 45.
Brendel is regarded as one of the major interpreters of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. He played relatively few 20th century works, but is closely associated with Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. Toward the end of his concert career he stopped playing some of the most physically demanding pieces in the repertoire, such as the Hammerklavier Sonata of Beethoven, owing to problems with arthritis.
Critical reaction to Brendel's playing has been mixed. While he has been lauded by Michael Steinberg as "the new Schnabel", critic Harold C. Schonberg noted that some critics and specialists accused the pianist of "pedanticism". Brendel's playing is sometimes described as being "cerebral", and he has said that he believes the primary job of the pianist is to respect the composer's wishes without showing off himself, or adding his own spin on the music: "I am responsible to the composer, and particularly to the piece". As well as his former mentor and teacher, Edwin Fischer, he cites Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences.
Brendel has worked with younger pianists such as Paul Lewis, Till Fellner and, most recently, Kit Armstrong. He has also performed in concert and recorded with his son Adrian. and appeared in many Lieder recitals with Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Matthias Goerne.
In November 2007, Brendel announced that he would retire from the concert platform after his concert of 18 December 2008 in Vienna, which featured him as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat; the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. His final concert in New York was at Carnegie Hall on 20 February 2008, with works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Since his debut at Carnegie Hall on 21 January 1973 he has appeared there 81 times, often in his own recital series, and in 1983 he became only the second pianist to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas at the Hall, a feat he repeated in 1993 (Artur Schnabel was the first in 1936; after Brendel, Maurizio Pollini performed the cycle in 1995/1996, and Daniel Barenboim did so in 2003).
Next to music, literature is Brendel's second life and occupation. His writings have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, and other languages. For several years, he has been a contributor to The New York Review of Books. His books include:
- Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Essays) (1976)
- Music Sounded Out (1990) – essays, including "Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious?"
- One Finger Too Many (Poetry) (1998)
- Alfred Brendel on Music (collected essays) (2001)
- Me, of All People: Alfred Brendel in Conversation with Martin Meyer (2002) (UK edition: The Veil of Order)
- Cursing Bagels (Poetry) (2004)
- Playing the Human Game (collected poems) (2010) Phaidon Press
- A Pianist's A–Z: A Piano Lover's Reader. Faber & Faber. 2013. ISBN 978-0571301843.
- Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE; 1989)
- Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berlin Philharmonic (1992)
- Beethoven-Ring of the Vienna Music University (2001)
- Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2002; Denmark)
- Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (2004)
- Prix Venenia: Premio Artur Rubinstein (2007)
- Praemium Imperiale (2008)
- Herbert von Karajan Prize (2008)
- Franz Liszt-Ehrenpreis (2011)
- Juilliard Medal (2011)
- Voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame (2012)
- Golden Mozart Medal of the Salzburg Mozarteum (2014)
Brendel has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities including London (1978), Oxford (1983), Yale (1992), McGill Montreal (2011), and Cambridge (2012) and holds other honorary degrees from the Royal College of Music, London (1999), Boston New England Conservatory (2009), Hochschule Franz Liszt Weimar (2009) and The Juilliard School (2011). He is an honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards by Edison, Midem Classical Awards, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis and Gramophone.
- Alfred Brendel – Unpublished Live and Radio Performances 1968–2001
- Great Pianists of the 20th Century – Alfred Brendel III
- Stephen Plaistow, "Brendel, Alfred", Grove Music Online, 2007. Accessed 3 June 2007.
- Merson, Francis (5 July 2012). "The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time". Limelight. Archived from the original on 2014-04-18.
- Charlotte Higgins (21 November 2007). "Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Anthony Holden (8 January 2006). "Alfred Brendel, A Personal 75th Birthday Selection". London: The Observer. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Nicholas Wroe (5 October 2002). "Keeper of the flame". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- "Featured Signatories", Campaign for a UN Parliament, 2007. Accessed 5 January 2011.
- Dargis, Manohla (3 November 2011). "A Master of the Piano Whose Performances Receive No Applause". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
- "Desert Island Discs: Aldred Brendel". bbc.co.uk. 15 November 2013. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
- The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present, Harold C. Schonberg, Simon & Schuster, Second Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-671-63837-8
- Tom Service (16 June 2003). "Alfred Brendel (Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk)". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Stephen Plaistow (15 December 2008). "'I've had a lot of fun' Alfred Brendel talks to Stephen Plaistow about inspirations, aching limbs and mastering Mozart". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- Andrew Clements (1 July 2003). "Adrian and Alfred Brendel (Wigmore Hall, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2007.
- Morrison, Richard (3 October 2009). "Alfred Brendel on retiring from the concert hall and his books of poetry". The Times (London). Retrieved 23 April 2010.
- "Alfred Brendel (pianist)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
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- Alfred Brendel interview by Bruce Duffie