Alfred Brendel

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Alfred Brendel
Brendel, Ruhr Piano Festival, Essen, 2019
Born (1931-01-05) 5 January 1931 (age 93)
Alma materGraz Conservatory
  • pianist
  • composer
  • writer

Alfred Brendel (born 5 January 1931) is an Austrian classical pianist, poet, author, composer, and lecturer who is noted for his performances of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.[1]


Brendel was born in Wizemberk,[2] Czechoslovakia (now Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic) to a non-musical family.[3] They moved to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when Brendel was three years old and he began piano lessons there at the age of six with Sofija Deželić. He later moved to Graz, Austria, where he studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan at the Graz Conservatory and composition with Artur Michel. Towards the end of World War II, the 14-year-old Brendel was sent back to Yugoslavia to dig trenches.

After the war, Brendel composed music as well as continued to play the piano, to write and to paint. But he never had more formal piano lessons and, although he attended master classes with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, was largely self-taught after age 16.[4]

Aged 17, Brendel performed publicly for the first time, in the city of Graz.[1] Titled "The Fugue in Piano Literature", it included fugal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, as well as a sonata by Brendel himself.[5] In 1949 he won fourth prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy. Subsequent tours in Europe and Latin America began to establish his reputation, and he undertook masterclasses by Paul Baumgartner, Eduard Steuermann and Edwin Fischer.[4]

Brendel's first recording was of Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1950. Two years later he made the world premiere recording of Franz Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum.[6] He went on to make a string of other records, including three complete sets of the Beethoven piano sonatas (one on Vox Records and two on Philips Records). He was the first performer to record Beethoven's complete solo piano works.[7] He has also recorded numerous works by Liszt, Brahms (including Brahms's concertos), Robert Schumann, and particularly Franz Schubert.[8] Brendel recorded the complete Mozart piano concertos with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which is included in the Philips 180-CD complete Mozart Edition.[9] He has recorded or performed little of the music of Frédéric Chopin, but not because of any lack of admiration for the composer. He considers Chopin's Preludes "the most glorious achievement in piano music after Beethoven and Schubert".[5]

Brendel recorded extensively for the Vox label, providing it 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 lives.[1] Since the 1970s, Brendel has recorded for Philips Classics Records.[10] Brendel completed many tours in Europe, the United States, South America, Japan and Australia.[11] 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.[12] 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.[12][13] He is only the third pianist (after Emil von Sauer and Wilhelm Backhaus) to have been awarded honorary membership of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he was awarded the Hans von Bülow Medal by the Berlin Philharmonic.[5]

Reviewing his 1993 Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (Philips Duo 438374), Damian Thompson of The Daily Telegraph described it as "a more magisterial approach ... sprinkled with touches of Brendel's strange, quirky humour."[14]

In April 2007 Brendel was one of the initial signatories of the "Appeal for the Establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations".[15]

In 2009 Brendel was featured in the German-Austrian documentary Pianomania, about a Steinway & Sons piano tuner, 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,[16] as well as in Asia and Europe, and is a part of the Goethe-Institut catalogue.


Brendel frequently performed the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. He has played relatively few 20th century works but has performed Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto.

Brendel was lauded by music critic Michael Steinberg as "the new Schnabel",[citation needed] whereas NY Times critic Harold C. Schonberg noted that some critics and specialists accused the pianist of "pedanticism".[17] Brendel's playing is sometimes described as "cerebral",[18] 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".[12] Brendel cites, in addition to his mentor and teacher Edwin Fischer, pianists Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences on his musical development.[citation needed]

Brendel has worked with younger pianists such as Paul Lewis,[19] Amandine Savary,[20] Till Fellner[21] and, most recently, Kit Armstrong.[22][23] He has also performed in concert and recorded with his son Adrian[24] and has appeared in many Lieder recitals with Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Matthias Goerne.

In 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; the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.[7] 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 performed there 81 times, including complete cycles of Beethoven's piano sonatas in 1983[25] and 1993.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Brendel has been married twice. His first marriage, from 1960 to 1972, was to Iris Heymann-Gonzala, and produced a daughter, Doris, who is a progressive rock and pop rock musician. In 1975, Brendel married Irene Semler, and they have three children; a son, Adrian, who is a cellist, and two daughters, Katharina and Sophie.[12]



Brendel has been a prolific author. 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.[26] 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 and Faber. 2013. ISBN 978-0-571-30184-3.


  • Musik, Sinn und Unsinn. Festschrift anläßlich der Hommage an Alfred Brendel (Berlin: Konzerthaus Berlin, 2017)[27]

Awards and accolades[edit]

Brendel has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities including London (1978), Oxford (1983), Yale (1992), University College Dublin (2007),[34] McGill Montreal (2011), Cambridge (2012) and York (2018) and holds other honorary degrees from the Royal College of Music, London (1999), New England Conservatory (2009), Hochschule Franz Liszt Weimar (2009) and The Juilliard School (2011). He is an honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford,[35] Wolfson College, Oxford, and Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards by Edison, Midem Classical Awards, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, Gramophone, and ECHO Klassik.

In 2012, Limelight asked 100 pianists which other pianist inspired them the most. In addition to his student, Paul Lewis, Brendel was mentioned by three others.[36] He was included in Peter Donohoe's "Fifty Great Pianists" series for BBC Radio 3, which aired in 2012.[37][38][39]


  1. ^ a b c Plaistow, Stephen (2007). "Brendel, Alfred". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 24 February 2024.
  2. ^ Wizemberk had formerly been called Wiesenberg when it had been part of Austria-Hungary, but was renamed after the creation of Czechoslovakia following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
  3. ^ "Alfred Brendel". Classic FM.
  4. ^ a b "Alfred Brendel: Life & Career". Retrieved 6 January 2016.
  5. ^ a b c Francis Merson, "Alfred Brendel: Notes on a Musical Life", Limelight, April 2016, p. 40
  6. ^ Uncle Dave Lewis. "Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum; L'arbre de Noël; The Christmas Tree". AllMusic. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b Charlotte Higgins (21 November 2007). "Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
  8. ^ "Alfred Brendel : Recordings". Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  9. ^ Kinderman, William (30 November 2006). Mozart's Piano Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-988016-4.
  10. ^ Anthony Holden (8 January 2006). "Alfred Brendel, A Personal 75th Birthday Selection". The Observer. London. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
  11. ^ Cummings, David M. (1 January 2000). International Who's Who in Music and Musicians' Directory: (in the Classical and Light Classical Fields). Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-948875-53-3.
  12. ^ a b c d Nicholas Wroe (5 October 2002). "Keeper of the flame". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
  13. ^ Bernard Holland (3 May 1981). "Alfred Brendel Has Taken the Wrong Roads to Success". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  14. ^ Thompson, Damian (28 January 2010). "Who is the greatest interpreter of Beethoven's piano music?". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  15. ^ "Featured Signatories" Archived 3 September 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Campaign for a UN Parliament, 2007. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  16. ^ Dargis, Manohla (3 November 2011). "A Master of the Piano Whose Performances Receive No Applause". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
  17. ^ The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present, Harold C. Schonberg, Simon & Schuster, Second Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-671-63837-8
  18. ^ Tom Service (16 June 2003). "Alfred Brendel (Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk)". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
  19. ^ "The Sorcerer's Apprentice Alfred Brendel and Paul Lewis Playing Schubert with no Middleman". 2 October 2017. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  20. ^ "Des œuvres de Schubert présentes depuis toujours, entretien avec Amandine Savary (Interview in French)". 19 April 2017. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  21. ^ "Till Fellner, Pianist (article in German)". Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Set the Piano Stool on Fire reveals the relationship between a master and his prodigy". 23 October 2011. Archived from the original on 1 October 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  24. ^ Andrew Clements (1 July 2003). "Adrian and Alfred Brendel (Wigmore Hall, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2007.
  25. ^ Carnegie Hall archive
  26. ^ "Alfred Brendel".
  27. ^ The Festschrift for Brendel contains contributions by, i.a., Imogen Cooper, Andreas Dorschel, Till Fellner, Peter Gülke, Florence Noiville and Sir Simon Rattle.
  28. ^ "Pour le Mérite: Alfred Brendel" (PDF). 2018. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  29. ^ "All Laureates - Praemium Imperiale". Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  30. ^ "Alfred Brendel - Praemium Imperiale". Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ "Alfred Brendel (pianist)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  33. ^ "ECHO KLASSIK Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved 17 October 2016.
  34. ^ "History of Music at UCD 1914–2019" by Wolfgang Marx, UCD School of Music
  35. ^ "Exeter College Oxford". University of Oxford. Archived from the original on 18 June 2014. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  36. ^ Merson, Francis (5 July 2012). "The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time". Limelight. Archived from the original on 18 April 2014.
  37. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2016. Retrieved 26 March 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  38. ^ "Alfred Brendel and Wilhelm Kempff – Peter Donohoe's Fifty Great Pianists". Breakfast. BBC Radio 3. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
  39. ^ "Fifty Great Pianists auf BBCs Radio 3 – Peter Donohoe" (in German). Archived from the original on 23 September 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2017.

External links[edit]