When the bespectacled Alfred Brendel walks on stage, one could be looking at Mr Magoo. In spite of the penguin suit, there is a suggestion that he may have set off for Tesco and taken a wrong turning. His fingers are tipped with Elastoplast, dangling from hands that appear to precede him, extended in such a way that he seems to be carrying them for someone else. Such individuality is precious to Brendel. As he repeatedly insists in The Veil of Order , he is an outsider, who doesn't like "cliques, parties or clans". He disavows allegiance to any school of piano playing, and on his official website, he announces: "If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he ought to have composed."
The public perception of Brendel was complicated a few years ago by the appearance of One Finger Too Many , a volume of English translations of some of Brendel's poems. It now turned out that Brendel was a scribbler of nonsense verse, sometimes reminiscent of Spike Milligan. An innocent delight in naked female flesh and a sly mocking wit emerged from pages that introduced a pianist with a third index finger, a monkey who came to Christmas and whom "our mother urged us to ape", a Buddha who found it a strain being holy, coupled with an appearance by the ghost of Brahms, trailing clouds of noxious cigar smoke, and a cameo by Godot, who had turned up at last.
It was a whimsical collection that drew from at least one critic the epithet Dadaist. "Bull's eye!" Brendel must have thought, for in The Veil of Order , Dadaist is just how he likes to describe himself. As this impressive word implies, nonsense is for Brendel a serious business. "What interests me is sensible nonsense, sense at the margins of nonsense," he says, and it is typical of him to form an intellectual construct and trace the cultural pedigree of something that to others might be frivolous, spontaneous and self-explanatory. In so doing, he rather undercuts the joy of nonsense, just as when he writes about humour in music, he never fails to exemplify the paradox that nothing is less funny than a discussion of humour.
This is very much Brendel's tendency, in which he is egged on by his interlocutor Martin Meyer, cultural editor of Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung , who asks questions such as: "Were you after the war more the existentialist than the ironic mystic?" The resulting conversations are the loftiest of exchanges, alighting only on the most elevated pinnacles of high culture. Puccini and Rachmaninov, to name but two, are left to languish in the valley below, censured for debasing "primary, genuine, noble emotions". At one point Brendel lets slip his admiration for Agatha Christie, but her appearance is so anomalous that we immediately recognise the eccentric, low-brow enthusiasm that marks out a certain type of intellectual. Meyer hastily gets the duo back on to the safer ground of "great literature, Musil, Proust, Thomas Mann, Kafka", and it is from this rich ground of excellence that the conversations derive their nourishment.
Whether this diet of commentary on Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Mozart, Busoni, Edwin Fischer and Fürtwangler is as nourishing for the reader is questionable. It is monotonous, repetitive fare. Novalis' quote from which the volume derives its title is cited three times, another favourite by Thomas Nagel twice; repeated also are Brendel's quip that he will play more Bach in the next life and his opinion that Scarlatti sounds better on the harpsichord than the piano. The lack of silent editing implies that the Brendel industry has swollen to such an unhealthy size that the pianist need only throw out a chance inconsequential remark - that Isaiah Berlin "never put on airs" or that Australia in the 1960s had no decent restaurants - for the fact to be recorded in print, and if he had said it twice, it would presumably have been recorded twice.
Thankfully, Meyer is enough of a journalist occasionally to drag Brendel down from Olympian heights to dish the dirt on his fellow pianists. Glenn Gould, whose radical interpretations Brendel disapproves of, finds in Brendel a good-natured adversary, although his gripe that Gould would not stay "within the limits" and had a "wish to be different" suggests that, for a Dadaist, Brendel can be a bit of an old stick. Speaking of Sviatoslav Richter, Brendel's approach shifts. He is determined to belittle him, but finds it much less easy to do so, and his few comments on the Russian only manage a note of civilised bitchiness - the same tone colouring his views of Vladimir Horowitz.
Here as elsewhere, a hint of disingenuousness is apparent. "I distrust opinions," Brendel says. "If I have sometimes expressed my own in the course of these conversations, I have committed the very fault... that has so annoyed me about criticism throughout my life." But what are his books but opinions? Opinions are not bad things and Brendel should not be afraid of having them. On the other hand, they might have sounded fresher had he not absorbed and did not so readily regurgitate other people's. The ambivalence surrounding Brendel's writing reaches apotheosis when Meyer asks: "What do you hope to achieve through writing?" Brendel's answer is curious: "To handle language in a more polished way. To strive for accuracy, while avoiding unnecessary complications." None of that "change the world" stuff. One would think he was a scribe at Her Majesty's Stationery Office labouring over a redraft of the Highway Code.
Anyway, to quote Philip Larkin: "Books are a load of crap." And Brendel's recording of Mozart's Fantasia in C Minor is still the best I know.
Christopher Wood is a freelance music journalist.
The Veil of Order: Conversations with Martin Meyer
Author - Alfred Brendel
ISBN - 0 571 21061 9
Publisher - Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 5