Brendel & Beckett

The Austrian pianist and poet is a witty if laconic conversationalist at the Happy Days festival

The Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen specializes in challenging its audiences with novel and unexpected experiences. In its third year, events are held in unusual locations – dances take place underground in the Marble Arch Caves and audiences are bussed to a disused church for Beckett’s Catastrophe play

Speakers from a wide range of backgrounds are invited to talk on Beckettian themes from unexpected angles – writer and feminist Germaine Greer reads an excerpt from Ned Kelly’s eve-of-execution writing as precursor to Beckett, and photographer John Minihan recounts his meetings with Beckett in Parisian cafés.

Among these latter is renowned classical pianist Alfred Brendel in conversation with Michael Berkeley, the composer and broadcaster, talking about ‘the Beckett effect’ and his own approach to contemporary music, art and literature. Brendel explains that when he first saw Waiting for Godot in an underground theatre in Vienna in the 1950s, it was an ‘epiphany’, something he afterwards realised he had been waiting for.

On introducing Brendel, Berkeley mentions the composer's wicked sense of humour, summed up for him in Brendel’s tart comment on a performance by an (unnamed) string quartet: 'Rough, but not ready.' Their discussion ranges widely over music, performance, audiences and Brendel’s own writing.

Since retirement from public performance six years ago, he has published two anthologies of poetry, and has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

The audience learns a certain amount about Brendel’s early life, his childhood and first piano lessons in Croatia, the absence of any strong musical or even cultural background in his family, and his parents’ coolness, if not hostility to his choice of career.

Then there is his admiration for three pianists of the previous generation: Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Kempff, and for the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Understandably, the conversation centres on Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. Of Schubert, Brendel’s – and Beckett’s – favourite composer, he comments: 'He may well be the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history. The richness of what he accomplished in a life of merely 31 years defies comparison.'

Brendel offers insights into the orchestral colours of keyboard music, such as Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he sees as being a harpsichord piece only in its final movement. He stresses the importance for him of the ‘cantabile’ – or the ‘singing’ – aspect of music, the over-riding unity ‘at the heart’ of all music, which he himself as a pianist had to learn from singers and conductors.

He has criticisms, too, of pianists who ‘stab’ rather than ‘play’ the keys, and of aspiring pianists who think they have to practise more than three hours at a stretch. There are pianists, Brendel warns us, who are addicted to the keyboard as to a drug. 'They need to be weaned off their addiction.'

For a man who is chiefly known for his performances of the classical and romantic repertoire, he reveals an unexpected admiration for the music of the Second Viennese School. Latter-day tonal music, such as that of Arvo Pärt, he has little time for – and he refuses to play what he describes as Rachmaninov’s ‘happy ever after’ music.

Brendel is not an expansive speaker. Generally his replies to Berkeley’s promptings are brief and to the point, returning the ball smartly back into the younger man’s court. He does, however, clearly have a thing about coughing at classical concerts, which he insists you don’t get in cinemas and theatres. His solution to persistent coughers: 'The Coughing Rhinemaiden, a tag worn dangling around your neck, will be handed to you in due course by one of the ushers.'

If Berkeley is a little too reverential and the octogenarian Brendel a little too laconic for the conversation quite to take wing, we see another, roguish and humorous side of Brendel when, towards the end, he reads two of his own poems.

The second in particular, on the Wildean theme of loving oneself being the beginning of a lifelong romance, has a neat twist at the end when the protagonist declares that he is going on a date as he thinks it's about time he cuckolded himself – a twist that Beckett himself might have enjoyed.