Alfred Brendel on Music
Three lectures: Does Classical Music Have to Be Entirely Serious?; Musical Character(s) as Exemplified in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas; Light and Shade of Interpretation
rec. Schüttkasten, Salzburg, 25-27 September 2010.
Picture format 16:9; Sound format LPCM stereo, DTS 5.0; Subtitles EN, DE, ES, FR, IT, KR, CH, JP; Region Code 0 (Worldwide)
UNITEL CLASSICS 703408 [225:00]

Master pianist, Alfred Brendel may no longer be giving concerts, but he is still around to present music to the public, just in different ways. In September 2010, he gave several lectures about music at the Salzburg Festival, speaking and playing on the piano excerpts from the works he was discussing. In addition, in the third lecture, Light and Shade of Interpretation, some recordings are played as examples, and some scores are projected on a screen behind the stage.

Brendel looks a bit like a stand-up comedian coming on-stage in the Catskills, with a shaggy-dog look and a self-deprecating attitude. Unfortunately, while Brendel is a great musician, and has many interesting things to say about music, his delivery is somewhat lacking. In spite of the fact that he has long lived in England, his English is a bit halting. For these lectures, he reads from prepared notes, and does so deliberately, with little emotion. However, when he starts playing the piano, this changes. In the first lecture, Does Classical Music Have to Be Entirely Serious?, his exaggerated facial expressions indicate which parts of the pieces he is playing are funny. But it’s a bit of a slog getting through these lectures. It would almost have been better if he had spoken in German, at least for the DVD, where one could display sub-titles. I recall a series of videos Brendel did discussing and performing Schubert’s late piano works. In these films he speaks directly to the camera with no notes – in German – and is much more lively than on the current films.

While Brendel has much to say, there is no real feeling of a speaker entrancing the audience, as the best lecturers can do. I had more the feeling of watching a lecture by a teacher, one that I was required to watch, with little real enjoyment. The lectures are long enough that they seem to stretch out: interestingly, each one is between 70 and 80 minutes, that is, the length of a CD, rather than the usual 52 minutes for a documentary or other work designed to be broadcast on television. This makes me think that there will be a CD version of these lectures in the future. But they seem longer than that.

I feel bad having to criticize Alfred Brendel, who is one of my favorite pianists, over the delivery of his lectures. His piano playing is wonderful, and the material he presents is interesting. It’s just that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a public speaker.

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville (

Alfred Brendel gives three interesting lectures on music, but his delivery makes them a tough slog.