There was no disappointment in hearing Emanuel Ax play a piano concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven earlier this month at Heinz Hall. Ax is one of the most dependably rewarding of contemporary pianists and is likely to delight again when he returns to play a concerto by Frederic Chopin with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at concerts starting Thursday afternoon.
Yet, there was a sense of loss about the mid-March concerts anyway because Ax was substituting for Alfred Brendel, who canceled the Pittsburgh stop of his final North American tour because of illness. There was no hype in the Pittsburgh Symphony promoting him as the "legendary Brendel" for the performances.
Brendel began his career in 1949 and came to international prominence in the late '50s and early '60s via recordings. But he didn't make his Pittsburgh Symphony debut until 1991 and performed with the orchestra for only one other set of concerts, in 2003.
Henceforth, local music lovers are likely to be able experience Brendel only through recordings. (Travelers might catch him in Europe, or perhaps at Carnegie Hall in New York City.) The pianist has a large discography of outstanding recordings, including three complete cycles of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, three sets of Beethoven's Piano Concerti, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerti with Sir Neville Marriner, and a large selection of Franz Schubert's piano music -- most on the Philips label.
Brendel's public persona has another invaluable dimension. He is a wonderful writer of both prose and poetry. A Capella press has just issued a collection of his essays called "Alfred Brendel on Music." The back cover includes Ax's comment that it is "A must for anyone who enjoys provocative and original ideas presented in a marvelously readable style. Mr. Brendel is a master of phrasing on the printed page as well as the keyboard."
The book's value is due to both its scope and the unceasingly fresh intelligence informed by experience. Brendel's mastery of musical detail leads to wonderful generalizations, such as "From tranquility, Haydn plunges into deep agitation, while Mozart does the reverse, aiming at tranquility from nervousness."
Brendel offers astute observations about Beethoven, 10 essays on the music of Franz Liszt, and discerning appreciation of such important musicians as composer and pianist Feruccio Busoni, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, and pianists Edwin Fischer (one of his teachers) and Artur Schnabel. …