Book review: A Pianist’s A-Z by Alfred Brendel

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IF THIS book – written by one of the greatest living pianists, although he has now retired from concert performance – were a work of piano music, I wonder what kind it might be?

A Pianist’s A-Z by Alfred Brendel

Faber & Faber, £14.99

It’s not a Chopin Étude – readers are directed by the author himself to his more substantial and intricate works, such as Alfred Brendel On Music. But nor is it a Beethovian Bagatelle, a Schubertian Impromptu or a Schumann-esque Humoreske. It’s an odd little book, both affectionate and tetchy, dealing with expertise and sheer enthusiasm, and modulating between miniature essays on composers, precise analyses of the art and craft of playing the piano and whimsical pieces of anecdote and gossip.

The subtitle is A Piano Lover’s Reader. To some extent it is directed exactly at lovers of the piano – not just aspiring concert pianists (or even amateurs) and not just those who want to listen but never play. If nothing else, the book gently introduces the reader to sublime pieces of music, but also to the best recordings of them and, best of all, tells us what our ears should be catching. One example, which perfectly interweaves the musicologist, the enthusiast and the audience: in his note on fingering, he mentions that Hans von Bülow’s copy of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata showed that in the scherzo, he played the same repeated note with different fingers. In his own reminiscences, Brendel sets down the challenge that distinguishes the great player from the home player. Ideally, he says, not just the separate hands but the individual fingers should act almost as if they were distinct entities (he is especially good, and useful, on playing chords and octaves).

A confession: I am a definitively amateur player, in the strict etymology of the word. I only play because I love playing. When we inherited a piano, my wife very cleverly bought me some new scores – John Cage, to be precise. Rather than tinkle over Bach two-part inventions my hands could do automatically and not well, I had to read the music again. The way in which Brendel insists on how music must be actually read is probably the most inspiring part of the book. It is also the most sweetly sentimental; as when he describes the score as music “asleep” and awaiting the performer’s kiss.

Brendel has written before about laughter and music, and mentions the topic again here in some wry anecdotes. He has chosen to not write too much about 20th century music, which is a pity, as hearing his insights on the comedy in Prokofiev’s piano concertos, or Poulenc’s, would have been welcome. Nor does he engage much with jazz; but when he gives a slight harrumph at attack-playing, I did wonder whether or not to put on a Thelonious Monk CD.

Of course, what this is – in terms of piano music – is a set of Variations. It might move from grazioso to sforzando, and con fuoco to zitternd, but the theme is always the same: loving the piano, the only instrument that can be like an orchestra. ■

• Alfred Brendel is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow

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