Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel at the piano, circa 1970. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Pianist Alfred Brendel c1970 © Getty

The celebrated pianist Alfred Brendel first understood the imp­ortance of nonsense when his mother sang him a 1920s Dadaist cabaret tune about stabbing a man with an eyelash. But he realised later, Brendel says at the beginning of The Lady from Arezzo — a selection of writings on music, art and himself — “that sense and nonsense need to be partners in order to mirror the absurdity of this world”. The titular Lady is an assemblage he saw in a Tuscan shop and adopted as a sort of totem: a mannequin bust with an ostrich egg on its head.

Brendel (born 1931) might seem an unlikely champion of the “chaos”, “contradiction” and “cap­rice” he admires in Dadaism: the avant-garde movement that prefigured Surrealism, and which saw artists write manifestos against manifestos, or turn urinals into sculpture. His recordings of early Romantic and classical Germanic repertoire — Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert — are the quintessence of moderation, good judgment and nuance.

But since retiring from performing in 2008, Czech-born Brendel has found more time to lecture, write and indulge another side of his sensibility; indeed, The Lady from Arezzo indulges two sides of the same man. The rational theorist shares what is almost a book of essays, nearly a fragmented memoir, with a more playful aesthete. Between entries on Dadaism and Haydn’s overlooked humour, Brendel has slotted nonsense poetry in a variety of languages. He has personally translated some.

Bookjacket of 'The Lady from Arezzo' by Alfred Brendel

On non-musical subjects, loud scene-painting and leathery adverbs can give the impression that pieces originally published in the New York Review of Books were intended to be read before a dinner. Machines “figure deliciously” in Francis Picabia’s magazines. Duchamp’s Readymades are “fervently discussed”.

When he’s discussing 18th and 19th-century music, though, the writing is rich and lucid: “In Schubert, the kinship [between major and minor keys] became so close that it leads into a kind of musical chiaroscuro.” On living without a piano while training to be a concert pianist, there is this piece of idiosyncratic wisdom: “This had the benefit that I didn’t practise too much. A pianist can ruin himself by too much practice.”

The end of the book is taken up with a fine autobiographical essay, “My Musical Life”. Brendel chose London as home in 1971, because it was the greatest “musical metropolis” in Europe. He “didn’t, however, need the Brexit vote to remind me that I’m a European”. A method in his Dadaist madness, and his preoccupation with an art movement that emerged at a time of war and nationalism, takes shape. In some ways, The Lady from Arezzo is a shattered double mirror for our times and distant times.

There is, he writes, a “resemblance between the world a hundred years ago and our present frame of mind . . . terrorism, nati­onalism, demagoguery, overpopulation, xenophobia.” For a solution he quotes the Viennese critic and satirist Karl Kraus: “As order has failed, let chaos be welcome.” One might say this is either a typical aesthete’s irresponsible answer, or giving up the fight. But then Brendel has spent a career spreading brilliance across nat­ional borders. If worthwhile nonsense gives him solace, perhaps it could help inoculate us all against the malevolent nonsense, fake news and postmodern political fashioning of our times. Another antidote, of course, could be his Beethoven recordings.

The Lady from Arezzo: My Musical Life and Other Matters, by Alfred Brendel, Faber, RRP£14.99, 136 pages

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