Friday, 2 December 2016

The Philosopher

The philosopher of the piano

One of the early commissions for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, in 1992, was to paint Alfred Brendel. I portrayed him as the learned philosopher of the piano, searching for and expounding profound issues in music, gazing into space, with his characteristic raising of the eyebrows, listening intently as he attempts to elevate us to the sublime. His gaze, accented by the heavy line of his spectacles, follows the direction of the undulating rising diagonal line from his tails, past the little flourish of the far end of the keyboard, left of the sloping piano lid to the four soft clouds of pale blue in the top right of the picture.  The white surface of the keyboard provides a counter-diagonal, to balance the whole composition. 

In my painting, Alfred Brendel is a natural extension of his great instrument – altogether, quite a lot of black. So I've tried to give those blacks and greys transparency, floating them over the mists of subdued olive green which swirl around him. His Steinway seems to be loaded with gold. Between heaven and earth, at the centre of everything, are those sensitive hands, with poor battered fingers taped, creating magic. His left hand is rising after placing a majestic chord from Liszt's 'Années de Pèlerinage'. Can you hear its dying sound? Brendel conjures up the grandeur of the echoing mountains and the stillness of the lakes of Switzerland and Italy - scenes which I know well. So it was Liszt, rather than Beethoven or Mozart, for which he has such a reputation, that became one of the main sources of inspiration for this painting.

This watercolour took quite a bit of research. I had been part of Brendel's audience years ago, but I had no opportunity, before the deadline for this commission, to observe him closely in live performance or rehearsal.  This was long before YouTube! Then Brendel's record company, Philips Classics, offered me the use of some wonderful video material in which his Liszt recordings were interspersed with thoughtful introductory talks.  The inspiration was there! But unfortunately the setting and lighting in which the recordings were made were totally different to the concept and colours I had in mind.  So began a long process of sifting and transforming impressions, through three or four studies, before the final watercolour took shape.

Twenty-four years on, looking back at this rather serious painting, I reflect on how inadequate any attempted representation of this erudite cultural giant would be, with his love of literature, languages and art, his sense of humour and much more. After the Birmingham concert for which this was painted, we were commiserating on the bad reproduction of my painting in a local newspaper. "It's the same with a recording", he said, "you are never satisfied".



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