Archive for October, 2016

Rudolph Buchbinder


Rudolph Buchbinder

Somehow, Rudolph Buchbinder has stayed below my radar all these years, even though he is celebrating his 70th birthday this December. He is probably better known in mainland Europe; I presume he wasn’t a regular on the South Bank when I attended concerts in London and I can’t recall seeing a Chicago recital before. However, he moves in elite company, regularly performing for the Vienna Philharmonic and other major orchestras, usually with prestigious conductors. The one time I do recall seeing him was on a PBS special, when he was performing at an outdoor concert in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, an implausibly picturesque setting that looks like a specially constructed set for an André Rieu concert. He gave an efficient performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, followed by a flamboyant piano transcription of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. This is evidently a favorite party piece of his, because he gave the same encore at this afternoon’s Symphony Center concert, forming a slightly incongruous if entertaining end to a rather serious afternoon.

I’m afraid I found much of the afternoon disappointing. He started with a fairly bland performance of one of Bach’s English Suites, fluent and generously pedaled but lacking in variety of color or imagination. Things didn’t improve with Schubert’s first set of Impromptus. These are tricky pieces to bring off because the piano textures are rather spare, particularly in the first movement, where the insistent repetition of the opening melody can become wearing unless played with the infinite subtlety that Paul Lewis displayed a couple of years ago. Buchbinder’s performance seemed rushed and clangorous, with the occasional unidiomatic rubato substituting for expressivity. The remaining movements were better, but still left me longing for the affection of a Lewis or Curzon. The audience erupted into applause at the end, making me feel more than usual like a jaded curmudgeon, so I decided to see if a glass of red wine would make me enjoy the rest of the concert more.

The second half of Beethoven sonatas was indeed better. Buchbinder is a Beethoven specialist, and he seemed more at home in music that depends more on harmonic drive than melodic color. In  the opening movement of the Sonata op. 14 no. 2, he played the opening theme with attractive fluidity and the second subject with Italianate charm. Nevertheless, having presumably played this for more than fifty years, he seems to have forgotten to care about the details. The first movement has several passages that build in intensity before a sudden piano or pianissimo marking, but these dynamic shifts, which can catch your breath in the best performances, scarcely registered in Buchbinder’s. The second movement was surely too fast for an Andante, unless he always walks like a Manhattan commuter. However, I loved the speed of his performance of the last movement, which I think is often played too slow to catch its impish humor.

The best performance by far was the Appassionata, which was played with genuine pace and drama, while always maintaining complete textual clarity, not easy at the speeds he chose. The slow variations could have been played with more dignity – he does seem to rush slow movements – but the final pages of the finale were exhilarating, particularly the coda, where Beethoven (and Buchbinder) threw caution to the wind in a thrilling  climax of wild abandon. I had no problem sharing the audience’s enthusiasm this time, and I don’t think it was the wine.

Before the Strauss transcription, Buchbinder played the Gigue from Bach’s first Partita as an encore, with a gossamer lightness and wit, far removed from the pedestrian Bach with which he opened the concert. When he displays such evident imagination and virtuosity, it makes me long to have heard him in his younger days, to see whether he showed a greater sense of wonder and affection for musical details that he now has a tendency to skate over. We are in a golden age of young pianists, with artists like Igor Levit and Jonathan Biss providing fresh insights into familiar scores such as these sonatas. Is it because they haven’t played this music so many times before? Since I will never be able to play the Appassionata the way Buchbinder can, even after decades of practice, I will probably never know.



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