Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26 (“Trauermarsch”)
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31 No. 3
Performed by Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
If one imagines a film being made about Beethoven, one could do worse than to invite Rudolf Buchbinder to act the lead role: the physical appearance alone of this Austrian pianist inexorably conjures up in the imagination various portraits of the great composer himself, while the consonant similarity of the names of these two redoubtable men of Vienna seems symbolic. Buchbinder has been in a dialogue with Beethoven his entire life – hence the title of his recent book, Mein Beethoven: Leben mit dem Meister (My Beethoven: Life with the Master). Although Buchbinder may well be separated from Beethoven by two centuries, yet still he may come closer to his predecessor thanks to historical and biographical resources, documents, letters, manuscripts and, by no means least, the music itself. Buchbinder belongs to that class of pianist-researchers for whom it is not just each note and each pause that are significant, not just each remarque or note left in the composer’s own hand: his whole life is important, its joys and its woes, its tragedies and its triumphs. Buchbinder commences talking about Beethoven with his personal qualities, with the power of his emotions, with his ability to love and his need to be loved. In Beethoven’s music, Buchbinder sees a reflection of the character and the destiny of his compatriot, and however jaded one might become of always turning to the same old friend, yet Buchbinder plays Beethoven again and again – and still each time afresh. Flying in the face of scholastic terminology, the pianist calls Beethoven a “supreme romantic”; he himself is a romantic musician who fears stiffness, rigidity and formalism more than anything else. Buchbinder is known for never listening to his own recordings, because as he is listening he would already play this or that section differently – this is true also of his own three recordings of the complete anthology of Beethoven’s sonatas. Hence Buchbinder’s loathing of working in studios – he needs the nervous tension of a live performance and the emotional connection with the public.
2020 was an anniversary Year of Beethoven, and in 2021 Buchbinder marks his own anniversary as a pianist for whom age, in his own words, has afforded him that which is most important – freedom. Buchbinder’s playing combines the sagacity of an incredibly experienced musician with youthful freshness, with the vivacity of a Spitzbube – or tearaway – called Rudi. “Pieces that have become stale must be performed in such a way that no-one in the auditorium can hum along,” Buchbinder has said in an interview; he himself never ceases to be surprised at – and he continues to stagger his audiences with his new discoveries. Having performed for many years in ensembles with outstanding instrumentalists – string and woodwind musicians – Buchbinder strives to think in an orchestral sense, seeing the piano as a universal “super-instrument” with an endless variety of timbre colouring and dynamic shading, just like the selfsame instrument of the future which Beethoven’s music was ultimately to find. Within Beethoven’s capacious and multi-layered structures, Buchbinder never fails to discover ever more new details and shading. Even the most experienced audiences will find surprises, because with Buchbinder both the general background and the foreground are constantly interchanged – the second voice, concealed in the shadows, and the dissonant consonance that far outstrips “classicism”, and the openwork decoration and the dense chord blocks may all come under the spotlight. Buchbinder is a phenomenal dramatist capable of holding the focussed attention of his audience from the first bar to the last, including the meditative slow movements: the temperamental pianist passionately declaims against the dragging-out of their tempi.
Buchbinder, like any true romantic, has an unattainable dream: to travel back through time and spend a day in Beethoven’s apartments, observing the genius at work while himself remaining unseen. The Mariinsky Theatre is inviting the public to spend seven evenings in Beethoven’s company, listening to the “New Testament of piano music” (Hans von Bülow speaking of the thirty-two sonatas) in the reading of its greatest adept, expert and interpreter. Khristina Batyushina