Alfred Brendel is the preeminent thinking pianist, a loner to whom fame came through the power of imaginative integrity, an artist who has achieved -- at his best -- a divinatory rapport with piano literature from Bach to Schoenberg.
Yet by his account, "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." Born in Wiesenberg, Moravia -- in the latter-day Czech Republic -- in 1931, he received piano lessons from ages 6 to 16, as the family moved from Zagreb to Graz, and studied composition privately while supporting himself in a variety of odd jobs. Brendel was among the first generation to learn from recordings, the legacies of Cortot, Kempff, Schnabel, Furtwängler, and Toscanini proving especially valuable. Master classes with Eduard Steuermann -- a pupil of Busoni and Schoenberg -- and Edwin Fischer crowned his scarce tuition. A 1948 debut recital in Graz marked the beginning of his career, launched by taking a prize at the Busoni Competition in Bolzano in 1949. Busoni's example, his mysticism and Faustian striving, fascinated the young Brendel -- he recorded Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica in the early 1950s -- but proved a detour while prompting an extraordinary insight into the music of Liszt. The ensnaring and gradual liberation from Busoni's influence may be traced in the several essays Brendel wrote about him in Musical Thoughts & After-Thoughts. Fischer came to mean more. "With Fischer," Brendel wrote in 1960, "one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before the soul when he communicated with the audience. One other musician, Furtwängler, conveyed to the same degree this sensation of music not being played, but rather happening by itself." Armed with such ideals, Brendel embarked upon an international recital and recording career which, in the decade of the 1960s, saw his reputation grow throughout Europe and North America as he became a frequent guest with the world's greatest orchestras. He performed the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas in London's Wigmore Hall in 1962, and recorded them for Vox. In the 1970s he became an exclusive Philips artist, touring and recording prolifically, not only the Classical masters -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann -- but Liszt, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg, and garnering numerous awards. He has published books of comedic poetry and musical criticism. In 2004 he appeared in concert with his son, cellist Adrian Brendel. Brendel announced his retirement in 2007 and undertook one last, worldwide concert and recital tour, ending in Vienna in December 2008, performing, appropriately enough, Mozart's "Jeunehomme" Piano Concerto.