10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 38

Seeing the humoresque side of things

Norman Lebrecht

ON MUSIC: COLLECTED ESSAYS by Alfred Brendel Robson, £16.95, pp. 418 One Belgravia night, going in to dinner, I caught a frosty look in Alfred Brendel's eye. Something the matter? I wondered.

'Something you wrote,' he grumbled. 'In the Sunday Telegraph you once categorised all pianists as eggheads or fruitcakes — and put me among the intellectuals.'

This was unnerving. I'd had deaththreats from several well-known crackpot pianists demanding an upgrade to brainbox, but to find Brendel wanting to dumb it among the clowns and cuckoos was almost enough to make me revise the whole generic theory.

Brendel is, he can scarcely deny, a man who breakfasted with Isaiah Berlin and credits Ernst Gombrich as his bibliographical adviser on sources of laughter. Not your average plinker-player with a tabloid under his stool and posh totty in the green room.

Months passed before I appreciated the cause of his anxiety. A BBC busybody, bidding to become head of Radio 3, would issue a ban on Brendel as a talk-show guest on the grounds that he was 'too intellectual' — the ultimate English pejorative, equivalent to Stalin's 'rootless cosmopolite'.

As a foreigner, resident on the edge of Hampstead Heath, Brendel must have learned that it does not pay to appear to know much in this country; and what you do know is best kept between the covers of a book, or behind the doors of a concert hall where no more than a fragment of the populace will ever venture. Better to be known as a wacko than as a contemplative artist with a mind of your own.

Brendel is one of the twice-blessed handful who can claim to have it both ways. His seriousness is above reproach, founded upon a lifelong involvement with Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert that cast him in the high-minded mould of Artur Schnabel. Unlike Schnabel, however, Brendel likes the flimsy bits as much as titanic masterpieces.