World-renowned pianist Alfred Brendel sang, gestured and rose to his feet passionately — all to imitate the rise and fall of a melody to School of Music students gathered at the Morse Recital Hall Thursday.

Brendel, best known for his interpretations of classical-period German works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, gave a master class to three School of Music students selected by professors in front of about 150 students, professors and community members.

Though Brendel, 78, retired from performing last December after a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he remains in the public eye, giving lectures and master classes and writing poetry and essays on music.

At Thursday’s master class, three graduate students and pianists, David Fung MUS ’11, Shih-Wei Huang MUS ’11 and Misha Namirovsky MUS ’11, each played a part of a piece by Franz Schubert before receiving feedback from Brendel. Brendel commented on almost every musical phrase, and he sang and played along with the performers.

“He was merciless but great,” said Justin Jee ’10, an undergraduate pianist who attended the master class.

Brendel asked the students to express the orchestral quality of Schubert’s piano music.

“This should be played as ensemble music, not ‘solo’ music,” Brendel said repeatedly.

In practice, this requires that the pianists maintain balance between the sounds produced by the left and right hands, while keeping tight rhythmic control over the piece.

“No orchestra would have a million basses in front and the top voice somewhere behind the audience,” Brendel said.

Above all, he encouraged the performers to listen to themselves and “satisfy their own musical needs.”

At one point in the master class, he treated his rapt audience to 10 seconds of a Schubert impromptu. The six audience members interviewed called Brendel a captivating performer.

“I would probably put him as my favorite performer right now,” Joanna Cornell ’12 said. “He’s so fun to watch.”

Anecdotes about Brendel’s performances abound in the piano world. It is common knowledge among Brendel’s fans that he dislikes audience members coughing during his performances — he even wrote a poem about it — and he occasionally practices in front of a mirror.

But it is Brendel’s scholarship that makes his performances special, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said. Brendel, who received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1992, is known for his analyses of the musical structure and his loyal interpretation of composers’ visions.

“His devotion to linking scholarship and performance [to make] music speak to somebody in a personal way is why he has the respect and admiration of musicians the world over,” Blocker said. “His artistry really speaks to people.”

Brendel also gave a lecture at the Morse Recital Hall Wednesday evening. More than 500 people attended the talk, “On Character in Music,” where Brendel compared the pianist’s task in Beethoven piano sonatas to that of a character actor identifying with different roles.