MUSIC : Play It Again, Piano Man : Alfred Brendel patiently built his career as the thinking listener's pianist, rapt in the challenge of taking on master works

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

The first time pianist Alfred Brendel saw himself on TV--30 years ago--he was very upset. His intensity and concentration all showed on his face, he remembers, and "my grimacing was both distracting and appalling."

So he set up a huge mirror alongside the piano. As he practiced, he studied and adjusted his facial expressions as well as his playing.

Brendel, who will perform Beethoven sonatas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion April 18 and 21, does not want anything to get in the way of the music, including the pianist. Then and now, the distinguished artist has made a career of interpreting Beethoven, Schubert and other masters without the frills.

Theatrical he isn't, either onstage or off. His playing is more precise than passionate, more intellectual than emotional. His books are well-written but scholarly. And in person, whether leading a guest through his art and book collections or talking pleasantries over soup and pasta, he is a serious presence.

Some critics have called his playing clinical, while others hear more warmth, but nobody questions his proficiency or dedication. Brendel, 62, has been playing piano publicly since 1948 and making records since 1952.

"To get attention, you have to play Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, be young and have a lot of flash," remarks Ward Botsford, the man who produced most of Brendel's early records. "And that is the antithesis of what Alfred Brendel is."

Not that the Austrian musician isn't successful. Someone who has been performing, teaching and writing for so long builds up loyal audiences at both the concert hall and record store. His concerts these days are often sold-out, and his record sales total in the millions.

Many things about his career are atypical, Brendel concedes. "I have no musical background. I was not a child prodigy. I was not from Eastern Europe. And I did not have spectacular early success."

What he had, however, was patience. "I did have an idea of the direction my life had to take, and it was a long-range vision," he says today. "It was not the ambition of a 20-year-old to be famous at the age of 25. In fact, fame didn't come in so much in the first place. It was more the ambition, the hope to achieve some things when I'm 50, which I have more or less accomplished. But it doesn't mean that I don't see plenty of things to do for some decades more."

So what has he chosen to do next? Beethoven, of course. The pianist, who has performed complete cycles of Beethoven's five concertos at least 14 times already, is now reinterpreting the composer's 32 sonatas.

Brendel has already begun recording Beethoven's sonatas for the third time as well as performing them once again around the world. It is a project that will span three years and may also include a book.

"Masterpieces always present something new," Brendel explains. "They're like powerhouses of energy that regenerate the energy of the player. In trying to do better, to improve, you keep in touch with yourself. I don't believe in starting a piece, playing it, recording it and discarding it. For me, the procedure is to find the right works with which one can live a lifetime."

The Brendel family home is in Hampstead, not far from the Keats Library. The Constable house is up the road, Hampstead Village nearby. Few sections of London are so civilized as Hampstead, and few people seem so natural in that setting as Brendel.

A visual amalgam of Michael Caine, Woody Allen and Arthur Miller, the pianist appears in his front door looking rumpled, distracted and professorial. But appearances can be deceptive. His hair may be mussed and unruly--he is, after all, still recovering from a winter flu--but everything else in the Brendel world seems well-ordered and under careful control.

He is a modern-day Renaissance man, a one-time painter who has one studio in which to play his music, another in which to write his articles and books. In his large but cozy Edwardian house, paintings cover nearly every wall that isn't lined with bookshelves. There are art books stacked on coffee tables, and even his pianos prop up assorted papers, sculptures and mementos.

Brendel's children are musical. Doris, 26, the child of his first marriage, writes music, sings and plays guitar. Still at home with Brendel and wife Irene are cellist Adrian, who is 17, 15-year-old Sophie, and 12-year-old Katharina, who plays violin.

But sitting in his studio, surrounded by the musical acquisitions of his own lifetime, the pianist makes it clear he had no such inspiration. An only child, he has called himself "the unlikely son of my parents."

"There were no musicians in the house," he says, "no concerts that my parents went to. There was a piano, and my parents thought it would not hurt if I would have piano lessons."

Brendel took piano lessons from age 6 to 16, changing teachers as his parents moved through Yugoslavia and Austria, his father working at different times as a hotel operator, architectural engineer and cinema director. Brendel attended the Graz Conservatory in Austria in his teens, after which he considers himself primarily self-taught. He attended a few master classes with pianist Edwin Fischer and others.

He began performing in 1948, and a year later won a Busoni Piano Competition prize, an achievement that helped him to snare some concerts in Vienna. The award nudged aside a second interest in painting, and he turned his full attention to piano. He left his native Graz for Vienna in 1950.

He made his first recording at 21, taking advantage of all the American companies in Vienna in the early '50s to make inexpensive recordings. "It was soon after the war and there was very little money. Everybody was very happy to do things for almost no fee, and the halls were relatively inexpensive."

Vanguard Recording Society had a studio in Vienna then, for instance, and during his annual visits, Vanguard owner and producer Seymour Solomon got to know the performers there. "Alfred was one of them," Solomon recalls today. "I thought he was a marvelous up-and-coming pianist, but I felt that he played in such a tortured manner that he would probably burn himself out."

George Mendelssohn at Vox apparently disagreed, and Brendel made some 50 records for that record company in the late 1950s and early '60s; his Beethoven sonatas are among the best-selling Vox Box sets today, says a Vox spokesman. After Vox, Brendel also made six records for Vanguard in the late '60s, including works by Chopin, Liszt and Mozart that Solomon says still sell well today.

The pianist has been an exclusive Philips Classics artist since 1970 where, given his 65 or so recordings, he's considered among its most prolific. "Alfred Brendel is one of those fine vintage artists that help to define a label," says Lisa Altman, vice president, Philips Classics, U.S. "He is one of our strongest, most consistent sellers."

Record sales obviously increased with concert exposure, and Brendel's career built slowly but steadily for many years. His first concert in New York was at the Austrian Institute, where he performed before about 50 invited guests in the late '50s, and his first U.S. performance of the Beethoven concertos was with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in St. Paul, not in New York.

Brendel's North American orchestral debut was with Zubin Mehta and the Montreal Symphony in the early '60s. He performed with Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in January, 1963, at the old Philharmonic Auditorium, playing two concertos, one by Mozart and the other by Liszt.

Philharmonic managing director Ernest Fleischmann and Mehta were among Brendel's first supporters, says his New York-based, longtime manager Agnes Eisenberger, and "built him a wonderful public there. Other people didn't have that kind of courage."

Reviews weren't always good, the halls were often off the beaten track and his early concerts "were not especially well attended," remembers Eisenberger. But things began to change when New York's Carnegie Hall gave him a multi-year contract in 1973 for three concerts a year.

Brendel developed a special public, more intellectual than fashionable, and apparently liked it that way. "He once said, 'I hate to think of a time when it will be the chic thing to do to come to my concerts,' " says Eisenberger. "He wanted music lovers."

He apparently got them. Donal Henahan wrote in the New York Times in 1983 that Brendel had staked out the intellectual audience, "attracting people who like to think about music as well as listen to it." More recently, the same critic pegged Brendel audiences as including people "who regard concert going as a form of activity comparable to attending a lecture on Wittgenstein or Derrida."

"The road was very rocky because he didn't play the popular repertoire that people expect a bravura artist to play," says Eisenberger. "He played the classical repertoire and didn't arouse excitement easily. When you came to his concerts, you had to contribute something also. You had to think about the music. He didn't have the trimmings of a matinee idol who pounced the piano."

When success seemed elusive, Brendel kept going, she continues, "being persistent and not paying attention to what any critic or detractor would say. We had to fight everybody, but we won. It came late, but it came. Now he can do anything he wants."

What he wants to do now is immerse himself in Beethoven, an artist he feels is without equal in covering so much ground and "drastically" changing the face of music. His goal: to serve the composer as "curator, executor and obstetrician."

"It's a matter of feeling and thinking as much as possible in Beethoven's own terms. I want to understand what he did and not use his works as a springboard to impose my beautiful ego on a performance. If a performance is interesting and personal, it will be the outcome but not the input."

So he has once again taken on the composer's landmark sonata cycle, hoping "to understand each of them and be able to show how they're 32 different variations on the theme sonata. A masterpiece says something that has not been said before or at least adds something interesting to the musical experience."

Brendel, who has compared well-chosen one-composer programs to well-chosen painting retrospectives, returns to other masters as well as to Beethoven. Also a major interpreter of Schubert, he has done cycles of Schubert piano works at Carnegie Hall, the L.A. Music Center (1988) and elsewhere. In 1987, he played his four-concert Schubert cycle in whole or in part in 24 European cities, and the London Times called his performance there "life enhancing in the most profound and enduring sense."

Brendel's first advice to young people is to study composition. "They should compose to know what it means to put something on paper, to have a piece that starts here and ends there. In the end it's a way of getting criteria on how to judge music. Why is this a masterpiece and (this) a lesser work? Why shouldn't I waste my time with that? And as piano literature is so enormous, one has to qualify as soon as possible which are the works you want to live with."

Brendel lives with musical history. In the sunlit studio off the living room, the high walls are covered with pictures of Lizst, Busoni, Paganini, Beethoven and former teacher Edwin Fischer. There is a framed envelope in Lizst's handwriting, and a signed hand print of Alban Berg that Brendel demonstrates is exactly the size of his own hand.

The upstairs library, with its cherry pink walls and white bookshelves, is where he keeps his books on theater and philosophy, the biographies and autobiographies, the letters and diaries. It is also where he writes, and out on his writing table are notes, drafts and materials destined for future articles and books.

Many of his articles for the New York Review of Books and other publications have been gathered together for his books, "Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts" and "Music Sounded Out." The latter came out in paperback last year.

"Bestsellers they're not," says friend and publisher Roger Straus, "but they sell nicely and will continue to sell indefinitely as books for people who are interested in music and in Brendel. He's considered the musician's musician (and) reviews are wonderful."

For several decades, he has played the piano using a sort of German Band-Aid called Hansaplast that protects his fingernails. Now he is protecting his arms and shoulders as well.

He's been diagnosed and treated for a disc problem in his neck. In mid-March, he canceled one of his three scheduled recitals in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities he plans to visit this spring, saying, "While I've improved greatly, I thought it better to be on the safe side. To make sure I can play the way I want to play, I have eased my performances in the U.S."

But one senses he wouldn't have taken on much more anyway. "I have never been one of the busiest pianists," he concurs. "There are people who played twice as much as I. I am not young and I want to enjoy my playing. I want to take time and think about pieces."

He is playing a series of concertos with London's Philharmonia Orchestra this year, which go from Bach to Schoenberg, and he will tour next summer with the Schoenberg piano concerto prior to recording it next fall in Europe. He expects to be back again in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities next April, playing more Beethoven sonatas.

Brendel is also pacing himself in the recording studio: His Beethoven sonata cycle will be recorded and released over the next three years. He used to record in a more concentrated fashion, he says, but he now plans to include rest days during recording sessions as well as on concert tours.

"If I listen to my records, there are some performances I am proud of, even if not completely satisfied, others I can tolerate, (others) I am not happy about. I have recorded some pieces several times, and sometimes I can see that I have developed and have not worked for nothing.

"There is always something to improve. But in really good pieces, there is always something to discover."

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