Alfred Brendel studied piano, composition and conducting in Zagreb and Graz, and completed his piano studies with Edwin Fischer, Paul Baumgartner, and Edward Steuermann. His international career began after winning a prize at the 1949 Busoni Competition and he now performs regularly at the world's major musical centres and festivals. He was the first pianist to record Beethoven's complete piano works, and figured importantly in establishing Schubert's piano sonatas, and Schoenberg's Piano Concerto in the concert repertoire. Brendel's affinity with deeply emotional music does not preclude a sense of humour. In a questionnaire he mentions "laughing" as his favourite occupation. Fittingly, his 1984 Darwin Lecture at Cambridge University dealt with the subject "Does classical music have to be entirely serious?".
Between 1992 and 1996 Alfred Brendel performed his last complete Beethoven Sonatas series at many venues across Europe and the USA. In recognition of his London cycle he was awarded the 1995 Evening Standard Classical Music Award for the Outstanding Performance of the Year, and the complete set of Philips recordings was awarded the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik 1997.
In 1998 Alfred Brendel celebrated the 50th anniversary of his professional debut with series that included solo and orchestral performances, chamber music, lieder recitals with Matthias Goerne, and readings of his poems. The consecutive years featured cycles of Beethoven’s 5 piano concertos with Sir Colin Davis in Munich, the Sinfonia Varsovia at the Cheltenham Festival, and Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic culminating in a cycle at the Salzburg Festival 2001 in honour of Brendel’s 70th birthday. For that occasion, a BBC television documentary, “Alfred Brendel: Man & Mask” was shown across Europe and has since been released on DVD and Video by Opus Arte.
Alongside his regular recitals through Europe and the USA more recent highlights have been concerts with the Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and David Zinman, the Luzern Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado, and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnanyi. Next season’s appearances include concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, the Vienna Philharmonic with both Bernard Haitink and Sir Charles Mackerras, and tours with the Berlin Philharmonic, again with Rattle, and with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons.
With an extensive and award-winning discography, Alfred Brendel now records exclusively for Philips Classics. In 1996 Philips released a 25 CD box set entitled "The Art of Alfred Brendel" featuring a selection of recordings from throughout his career. Recent releases since then have included the Beethoven Piano Concertos with Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic, 4 Mozart Concerto discs with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the first 4 discs in a series of Mozart Sonata recordings, live recording of Schubert Sonatas released to mark his 70th Birthday, Schubert’s Winterreise, Schwanengesang, and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte with Matthias Goerne, and the complete Beethoven Cello works with his son Adrian Brendel. He also features strongly in Philips “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series with 3 double CDs including many live performances issued for the first time. Honouring his 75th birthday in 2006, Philips embarks on a series of Brendel’s recordings selected by himself, called Artist’s Choice.
Besides music, literature has remained Alfred Brendel’s foremost interest and second occupation. He has published two books of essays, Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out the latter of which was awarded the 1990 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for writing. A volume of collected essays, Alfred Brendel on Music, which includes some previously unpublished articles, came out in January 2001 to mark his 70th birthday. There are also three German collections of poems which have been followed by a volume of collected poems, Spiegelbild und schwarzer Spuk, two English selections entitled One Finger Too Many and Cursing Bagels are available in the Faber Poetry Series. A book of conversations with Martin Meyer, Ausgerechnet ich, was published in 2001, it’s English version (2002) bearing the title A Veil of Order.
He has received honorary degrees from many universities including Oxford and Yale and was awarded an honorary KBE in 1989. In 1992 he received the Hans von Bülow Medal from the Berlin Philharmonic and was granted Honorary Membership of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in December 1998. In 2001 he was recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement” awards at both the MIDEM Cannes Classical Awards, and the Edison Awards in Holland, as well as the prestigious “Beethoven Ring” from the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna. The following year he has received the Leonie Sonning Prize, presented at a gala concert in Copenhagen, the Robert Schumann Prize, the 2002 South Bank Show Classical Music Award, and most recently the 2004 Ernst von Siemens Prize.
In November 2007, Brendel announced that he would retire from the concert platform after his concert of 18 December 2008 in Vienna, which featured him as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat.