Brendel was born in Wiesenberg to a non-musical family. They moved to Zagreb when Brendel was six, and later to Graz, where they lived during World War II, towards the end of which the 14-year old Brendel was sent to Yugoslavia to dig trenches. However, he developed frostbite and was taken to hospital. Brendel began piano lessons when he was six with Sofija Deželić, and at 14 he studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan and composition in the Graz Conservatory for the next two years, but otherwise had little formal music education.
After the war, Brendel composed music, as well as continuing to play the piano and to paint. However, he never had more formal piano lessons and although he attended masterclasses with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, he was largely self-taught.
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 some of Brendel's own compositions. However, he gave up composing shortly after this to concentrate on the piano. In 1949 he won 4th prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy and moved to Vienna the following year.
At the age of 20, in 1951, he made his first record, Franz Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum (that work's world premiere recording). The next year came his first concerto recording: Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5. 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 Franz Schubert. Unlike most classical pianists, Brendel has recorded very little by Frédéric Chopin other than the polonaises. 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 Phillips 180 CD complete Mozart Edition.
Brendel recorded extensively for the Vox label, providing them his first of three sets of the complete Beethoven sonatas. He did not secure a major recording contract until the 1970s, nor did he play much outside Austria. 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.
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.
Brendel is regarded as one of the most thoughtful interpreters of classical Germanic works by such composers as Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. He plays 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 many 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".
In recent years, Brendel has worked with younger pianists such as Paul Lewis, Mark Gasser, Roberto Carnevale, Andrew von Oeyen, Till Fellner and, most recently, Kit Armstrong. He has also performed in concert and recorded with his son Adrian.
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 the Carnegie Hall on 21 January 1973 he has appeared there 81 times, and in 1983 he became only the second pianist to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas at the Hall, a feat which he repeated in 1993 (Artur Schnabel was the first in 1936; after Brendel, Maurizio Pollini performed the cycle in 1995-1995, and Daniel Barenboim did so in 2003).
Brendel is also a published poet and author. His books include:
- Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Essays) (1976)
- Music Sounded Out (1990)
- 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)
- Honorary Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE; 1989)
- Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford
- Sonning Award (2002; Denmark)
- Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (2004)
- Praemium Imperiale (2009)
- Voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame (2012)
Honorary Doctor of Music, University of Cambridge 2012 
- 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.
- 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.
- http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/movies/pianomania-by-lilian-franck-and-robert-cibis-review.html. Missing or empty
- 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". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- Andrew Clements (1 July 2003). "Adrian and Alfred Brendel (Wigmore Hall, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2007.
- "Honorary Members of the Royal Academy of Music (Oct.14, 2009)". Royal Academy of Music. 14 October 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2009.
- Alfred Brendel (27 March 2004). "Hymns, Pianos and Laughing Angels". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 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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