11/19/2007 06:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Titan Retires

The Chicago Tribune has reported that Alfred Brendel plans to retire in December of 2008. As one who has often noted that musicians - and pianists especially - tend to wait too long before hanging up their white tie and tails for good, this should be pleasing news. But it isn't. It is, in fact, impossible for me to receive this news with anything other than the utmost sadness.

Alfred Brendel is not merely a pianist, he embodies all that is praiseworthy in a pianist. He is diffident to a fault; I once said that at his concerts, Brendel shambles out looking like a rumpled accountant, displaying all the charisma and flash of wilted spinach. But once he sat down on the piano bench it was as though the Holy Ghost descended. Whatever he chose to play he played brilliantly. And he, almost alone among the pianists of his generation, never failed to choose well. Other pianists had blazing debuts and flamed out quickly; others won competitions and were never heard from again. Brendel seemed to have been performing since the Crusades. He never played down to an audience, never phoned in a performance, and never had his name associated with scandal. With Brendel, it was never a case of "style over substance" because there never was any style there. Ever. Nothing was ever permitted to get in the way of the substance.

But if you wanted a probing, insightful performance that never failed to ring true and which was fascinating from first note to last, his were the recordings you almost instinctively reached. He was above all faithful to the men whose music he played. I do not think that at any time in his long and storied career any audience member walked out of the hall enraptured by his technique, simply because technique in a Brendel concert was the height of irrelevance. It sounds silly but it is true: That astonishing brain and that boundless heart brought forth the music, not the fingers. A Brendel concert was not merely music performed, it was a glimpse of the soul of the artist.

Fair enough, the man is 76 years old and he wants to enjoy the fruits of his labors while he is healthy enough to enjoy them. He's assuredly entitled to it. The press reports indicated that he is in the pink of health and that "medical reasons" have nothing to do with his decision. He has apparently decided to retire before his friends and his public begin to suggest it. But I am filled with sadness for the audiences who have never experienced one of his concerts and who, after December of 2008, will never have the chance.

Unless he changes his mind, his last recital will be in Vienna. If you are going to say good-bye, might as well do it at home. So if in the next thirteen months Alfred Brendel is playing a recital on a continent near you, hear him while you still can.