The unconventional Austrian pianist talks to Limelight about life at 85, his long career and taking stock of his remarkable legacy.

At the age of 85, Alfred Brendel is a little bit tired of being labelled. First and foremost, could everyone please stop calling him an ‘intellectual pianist’? While his learned essays and his lectures on music may give the impression that Brendel is a think-first, feel-later kind of musician, he rejects the suggestion outright. “The tag of ‘intellectual pianist’ comes from a few American critics and does not reflect European taste,” he maintains.

The fact that I have written about music doesn’t signify that I’m not a spontaneous performer. I’m a musician who also thinks.

Still, it’s not hard to see why the label might have stuck in the first place. Brendel’s debut recital, given in Graz at the age of 17, was an impressively cerebral programme called The Fugue in Piano Literature. It included intensely contrapuntal works by Bach, Brahms and Liszt alongside a complex double fugue of Brendel’s own composition. Moving forward to Brendel’s first recording, made in 1951, and you’ll find no potpourri of crowd-pleasers. Instead, the 21-year-old...