May 9th 2019

Interview with Rudolf Buchbinder, star performer at Aix music festival

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

The latest edition of the Festival de Pâques (Easter Festival) brought a stellar array of singers, pianists, instrumentalists and orchestras to Aix-en-Provence, near Marseille this year. Co-founder and violinist Renaud Capuçon tells me the festival, which ran April 13-28 April, has become the realization of a dream he has nurtured since childhood. 

Buchbinder by Michael Johnson
Rudolf Buchbinder by Michael Johnson

A highlight was the performance by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder of the five Beethoven piano concertos while conducting the Sachsische Staatskapelle of Dresden from the keyboard. He accomplished the feat in a single day, showing no sign of strain, a remarkable feat for a player of 72 years of age. 

On the day before he was to play his marathon concerts, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the “Teddy Bar” of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his love for Beethoven. He was relaxed and cheerful and spoke freely. He dismissed his marathon feat of keyboard conducting as “nothing special”. 

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

 

Q. You probably don’t like this term “marathon” to describe your five Beethoven concertos in one day, do you? 

A.  Actually, a solo recital is much worse than playing the five. Even practicing for four hours is much worse. I once played the two Brahms concertos in one evening ! 

 

Q. But you also conduct from the keyboard. That must be stressful.

 

A. This is nothing special. Before, everybody did it. Beethoven did it. I conduct with my eyes, with my mouth, a little bit with my hands. I have done it 500 times in my life. It’s a different kind of concentration. The players have to listen. 

 

Q. You have played the five concertos before in one day. This is not the first time, is it ? 

A. Yes, in 2011 I did it with the Vienna Philharmonic. 

 

Q. You are not intimidated by such a large task ? 

A. No. Why should I be ? 

 

Q. Well, because there are a lot of notes !

 

A. Oh no. The secret of piano playing is simple. You just have to touch the right notes at the right time. That’s it. (Laughs) 

 

Q. Do you have to prepare yourself for these five ? Do you review the scores prior to the concert ? 

A. No, this time I left the scores at home in Vienna. I don’t need them. 

 

Q. Really ? You have them all in your head ? How many times have you played these concertos ? 

A. Over 200 times for No. 1, and probably a hundred or more for the others.  No. 1 was my first big concert. I was 11 years old, in Vienna, in short pants. (Laughs)  

Q. In what order you play them? 

A. I play 2, 3, 4 in the first concert, and 1 and 5 in the evening. Because 1 and 5 are the longest. No. 1 has a longest slow movement. 

 

Q. Do you have a favorite among the five ? 

A. No. If I had a favorite, I could not play the others. It’s my problem. I have to love all of them. Each concerto is so completely different. 

 

Q. Aren’t they derived from Mozart’s piano concertos in certain passages ? Tovey wrote of “several examples of Mozart” that appear in No. 1. These two geniuses were rivals. 

A. People say the first two concertos are influenced by Mozart but that’s not true. They have nothing to do with Mozart. It’s all about Beethoven. Beethoven didn’t think about Mozart. In fact, he hated Mozart. He didn’t think of Mozart. When he came to Vienna, Mozart was God. He was always jealous. It took Beethoven a long time to be as popular. People also try to make three periods in the Beethoven sonatas. Wrong. He had his ups and downs throughout this life. 

 

Q. Aren’t the Beethoven cadenzas a special feature of these concertos ? 

A. In 1809 or1810 Beethoven wrote all the cadenzas for his concertos. He just sat down and wrote them, one after another. He wrote three cadenzas for his No 1. There actually was one connection with Mozart. Beethoven wrote the cadenza for K466, the D-minor, because Mozart didn’t write this one. He improvised onstage. 

Here Buchbinder plays the D-minor concerto with the Beethoven cadenza:

(Editor: The interview continues after the video)

Q. When you play the concertos, do you use Beethoven’s or do you write your own? 

A. Only Beethoven’s. Of his three cadenzas for No. 1, the first one is the best one but was left unfinished so I use some parts of the second and third cadenza to fill it out. They fit perfect.

 

Q. Are you the only pianist who plays around with cadenzas like this ? 

A. I think so. As far as I now, I am the only pianist to combine the cadenzas into

one.

 

Q. You compose cadenzas for other concertos but you do not use your own for the Beethoven concertos? 

A. No… only Beethoven’s. They are not so bad, you know (Laughs).

 

Q. I am fascinated that you can carry all these five concertos in your head. 

A. Oh, this is only a part of my repertoire.

 

Q. A personal question about your stamina. At age 72, can you play all five without worrying about fatigue? 

A. I admit that am very nervous. The older I get, the more nervous I get. As a young man, I used to walk on stage confidently (Mimes confident posture, as if marching on stage.)

 

Q. You don’t worry about this increasing nervousness? 

A. No. No. Backstage, I don’t think about the concert that is coming. When I come onstage, I have cold fingers. A few seconds later, at the keyboard, I am back to normal.

 

Q. Do you worry about memory lapses ? 

A.  No. This should never happen. I am very secure. Well, maybe a little bit in K466.

 

Q. You have said you want to die on the keyboard? 

A. Yes, like Wilhelm Backhaus. After two movements of a Schubert Impromptu he left the stage, then returned to play the same thing over again. It was his favorite. He was very ill and knew this would be his final performance. After his Schubert, he was taken to hospital where he died.

 

Q. Do you have ten years left, or twenty, like Badura-Skoda, who is still playing in his 90s? 

A. Look. I have to play. But I only play when I am able to concentrate. I only practice two hours a day, but sometimes I don’t touch the piano for one week.

I am active. I just signed exclusive contract for Deutsche Grammophon.

 

Q. Is playing getting more difficult or easier? 

The Brahms concertos are much easier for me now than ten years ago. I played The Tchaikovsky First with Valery Gergiev maybe five or six times and also Rachmanninov.

 

Q. Critics and other experts like to identify Beethoven’s development from Classical composing to a more Romantic style. Where does this begin to happen? 

A. This is stupid. The first one is Romantic. Beethoven always went up and down throughout his life. Beethoven was the most romantic composer in music history. He is the only composer who writes espressivo a tempo. Nobody else. He leaves the freedom to the interpreter.

 

Q. Your views are fascinating because they are so individual. Is this a freedom that you can express now because of your age and experience? Does this empower you to say what you really think, regardless of other opinions ? 

A. You know the late Joachim Kaiser? We knew each other very, very well. He forced me … he said to me, “Rudi, you have to record the Beethoven sonatas again.” After 30 years interval I did them again for Sony in Dresden and then again at the Salzburg Festival. Thirty years ago I was not “free” like this.

 

Q. And when did you feel this freedom arrive? 

A. You cannot control it. It comes by itself. Like in the Hammerklavier, you play fast (Sings the opening phrase, loudly and vigorously) like B-DUM PATA DUM PATA DUMDUM). You play those first seven or eight bars by the metronome, and then you are free. Beethoven writes everything very clearly. After that introduction he keeps the pedal. That makes a big difference. Many players do not have those freedoms today. They are afraid. 

Beethoven writes rinf forzando (slurring), for the whole phrase. Only Brahms also used rinf. The alternative is fortepiano, which is short, like a mosquito bite. 

Q. But you have the discovered the freedom. Aren’t you afraid of criticism? 

A. I have no problem with criticism. If the critic declares what is right and what is wrong. What I don’t like is the critic who says, for no reason, “It was too fast.” 

Q. You always choose Steinways for your concerts. Why not Bösendorfer, for example, or Fazioli? 

A.  Of course Vienna was very proud of Bösendorfer. But the tone to me is much too sharp, too harsh. Bösendorfer makes its own sound. I want to make the sound myself. 

Q. “Too glassy”, as some pianists say.

A. Steinway is the most neutral of all pianos. By this I mean that nothing comes from the piano, the way it is built. How you treat a woman like the Steinway, it’s the same. What you treat them good, they respond good. What you give, it comes back. I want to make the sound. You can play soft, you can pay lyrically, espressivo. The range is much bigger. 

Q.  You say you have projects coming from Deustche Grammophon. For example? 

In October, I will start a cycle of the Beethoven concertos. No. 1 with Andris Nelsons.  No. 2 with Maris Janssons with Bavarian Radio. No. 3 with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic. No. 4 with Theileman Andriessen and the Staatskappelle.  No. 5 with Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. All to be published by Deutcsche Grammophon. It’s a nice cycle. It will appear in about two years. We also have other plans.

END

 

 

 


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