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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Piano Master Brendel Makes Last Trip to Moscow

Philips Benjamin EalovegaSelf-taught since age 16, Brendel became a virtuoso performer on his own.
Alfred Brendel can produce a long list of reasons why his musical career came as a surprise. "I was not a child prodigy; I'm not Jewish; I'm not from Eastern Europe; I'm not a good sight reader," the classical pianist has said. "I'm completely at a loss to explain why I made it."

Over the past 60 years, Brendel has dedicated himself to thoughtful interpretations of classical piano works, primarily by German composers. Though not a flamboyant crowd-pleaser on stage like some other noted pianists, Brendel is known to spend hours and even years poring over a single piece of music.

This fall, the 77-year-old Brendel has set off on one final concert tour before retiring from public performances. The trip to the Moscow Conservatory, where he will play Friday, is a quick dash eastward between stops in Milan and Brussels.

Raised in the worldly atmosphere of postwar Europe, Brendel above all values intellect in an artist. "Without it, the work of art may be full of love and passion, but it's amateurish," he said in a 2000 film documentary about him and his work. His meticulous efforts to respect the music he plays has won him the reputation of a responsible musician who does not misrepresent the original essence of a composer's work.

"He is the last of the great pianists of the 20th century, like Rubinstein and Michelangeli," said Moscow music critic Ilya Ovchinnikov. "He is widely respected as a music essayist as well, and he has already tried to leave the stage to focus on writing."

Philips & Benjamin Ealovega
The 77-year-old pianist is famous for his faithful renditions of classic pieces.

Born in Moravia (present-day Czech Republic), Brendel was carted around prewar Eastern Europe by his parents as his father moved through an odd mix of jobs, which included managing a hotel in Yugoslavia and running a cinema in Zagreb. He took piano lessons but never had any formal musical education and was largely self-taught past the age of 16. When his first public recital was held in Graz, Brendel was 17 and was considering a career in art -- his watercolors were on view at a nearby gallery. But after he won the prestigious Busoni piano competition the following year, he decided to focus on music and told a friend to burn his artwork (the friend kept it stashed away instead).

Brendel achieved wider recognition when he recorded the entire piano works of Beethoven in the 1960s, the first performer to complete the feat. Then he did it two more times.

In the literary world, Brendel has not focused strictly on music theory, as he unexpectedly debuted with a poetry collection a decade ago. The divergence in form was paired with a new style as well -- his lavish poems are a far cry from his austerity at the piano keys. In one, a concert pianist grows an extra index finger to jab into the air while using the others for musical purposes. With poetry Brendel seems to have let his imagination run wild -- something that he has avoided during decades of playing music composed by others.

For his last concert in Russia, Brendel will stick to his usual repertoire, which doesn't often venture away from Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, Liszt and Brahms; he is not the type to end his musical career with a bang. In an interview with German writer Martin Meyer, the media-shy Brendel wished that all artists had "remained as anonymous in their everyday life as Shakespeare," whose private affairs were so hidden from view that they have been lost to history.

Alfred Brendel will perform at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14 at the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. 13/6 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ul. M. Arbatskaya. 629-2060.