Book Festival review: Alfred Brendel
Concert pianist Alfred Brendel proves to be an expressive communicator, even without a Steinway, finds David Robinson
AT LEAST in my mind, there’s no question about it: the saddest answer any author has given from the stage at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival came at 7:20pm on Tuesday night. A lady in the audience had asked Alfred Brendel what sort of music he played at home now that he has retired from the world’s concert halls.
That was five years ago, and even before then, arthritis in his hands had forced him to stop playing some of the more demanding pieces in his repertoire. “My aim was to stop at the right moment,” he told the questioner, “when I could still control rhythm and nuance. These days I play in my mind. Some pieces I play better than before.”
If there’s even the slightest hint of self-pity in that response, I must emphasise that there was none in its delivery. Even without a Steinway in front of him, Brendel is an expressive communicator of the musician’s struggle to bring everything about the music that is in his or her mind to the audience at the moment of performance.
I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help thinking that even if you’d never heard Brendel play, you’d have known just from hearing him talk, that he was – and is – a great artist. You’d have caught, in the Mitteleuropean precision of his answers, a hint of the perfectionism of his playing.
You’d have gathered his sense of musical history, his belief in the fundamental importance of staying true to the composer’s intentions instead of showing off your own virtuosity. You’d have picked up on his sense of humour and the thoughtfulness that also underpins his poetry.
Logically, this may indeed be absurd. But it’s an absurdity that is central to the appeal of book festivals. There is no link between seeing the musician and understanding the music, no more than knowing about the personal life of a musician deepens one’s appreciation of his art: as Brendel pointed out, it’s wishful thinking to pretend otherwise. We know all about Beethoven’s domestic disarray and his hastily scribbled compositions, yet these same works have a massive solidity that the life doesn’t reflect.
Bright, optimistic pieces of music can emerge from composers whose personal lives are a mess. So does it matter, seeing the artist, or knowing just a tiny bit more about them – as one does after listening to them for an hour? On Tuesday night, there were 570 of us packed into the Book Festival’s main tent to hear a great pianist who can no longer play the piano. That might be a paradox, but it’s one we were delighted to accept.
It doesn’t always work like this. Some of us sad sacks turned up to hear Christian Plowman talk about being an undercover cop in the hope of coming across a real-life British equivalent of Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. We were sorely disappointed. Here’s a man – pleasant enough – who made taking on ten different identities at the same time sound as exciting as a city-centre supermarket manager talking about the difficulties of coping with the lunchtime rush.
For all that, I remain a firm Book Festival fan. Where else, for example, could you see, one after the other, a largely self-taught genius pianist, a man who had to use taxpayers’ money to buy drugs (quite legal, of course, for undercover cops out to nab a gang leader) and someone who escaped from being a Hezbollah hostage in Beirut?
The last of these, the American journalist Charles Glass, is so cool that he didn’t even mention Beirut once. He’s also ridiculously handsome (think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and you’re not far off the mark). On top of that, he has a take on the Second World War that a) no-one else seems to have written about before and b) censors have tried to suppress.
It’s this: that in the last war, 100,000 Brits and 50,000 Americans deserted. Before we started our counter-offensive in the desert war against Rommel, there were 20,000 British deserters living in the Nile Delta. No, I had no idea either.
An elderly gentleman who’d fought in the Tanks Corps in the war couldn’t understand it. That’s almost one in ten of the frontline troops; it didn’t remotely square with his experience. Someone else thought it was just “fiction”. Glass might have the facts on his side, but some people clearly didn’t like them.
“Did you ever expect your book to cause offence,” asked bemused chair Allan Little at the end. “Not until tonight,” said Glass, heading out to the signing tent.