Rudolf Buchbinder performs a wide range of music from J.S. Bach to present-day works, but one composer towers above all the rest. “There is no question that Beethoven is at the center of not only my repertoire but perhaps also my life,” he said. “This person has fascinated me from the beginning.”
Since 1982, the celebrated Viennese virtuoso has given nearly 60 performances worldwide of Beethoven’s complete 32 piano sonatas, which span the composer’s career and display his stylistic evolution and expressive depth. The cycle is the apex of the sonata literature and an extreme test for any soloist because of its expansive technical and interpretative challenges. He has recorded the set twice, first in 1979 and again in 2012.
Buchbinder will be one of six pianists participating in the SCP Piano Series’ presentation of the 32 sonatas in 2019-20. The event is part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, including CSO performances of all nine of the composer’s symphonies. He will perform Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 3, 20 and 23 (Appassionata) on Nov. 6 and then return Nov. 10 for Sonatas No. 5, 6, 7 and 18. (In between, he makes a quick jaunt to New York for a Nov. 9 concert in Carnegie Hall with conductor Mariss Jansons and Germany’s Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.) “I love Chicago, I love the concert hall, and I’m looking forward to doing this,” he said.
In 2014, Buchbinder published a book in German (it has yet to be translated into English) titled My Beethoven: Life With the Master, which offers some of his thoughts on the composer and his music gleaned from decades of study and performance. He believes that Beethoven is one of the most romantic composers in history. As proof, he points to the composer’s habit of writing a tempo, a marking that means a return to the main tempo, after sections that marked espressivo (with feeling). Such an indication appears twice in the Piano Sonata No. 30. “No other composer writes this,” he said. Buchbinder believes such an indication means the composer expects the performer to choose some other tempo for those passages. “So he leaves the freedom to the interpreter,” he said.
Over the years, his approach to Beethoven has grown looser and less rigid. “When you are young, you are very — how do you say? — not narrow-minded but not flexible. You’re very clear, and the older I have become, the more free I am.” He remembers listening as a student to performances of the Bach Cello Suites by Pablo Casals and being shocked by the degree of rubato or expressive freedom that the celebrated cellist brought to his playing. “But today I think this is absolutely right,” he said.
One of Buchbinder’s favorite little books is On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for Piano, which one of Beethoven’s students, Carl Czerny, published in 1846. In it, Czerny, a respected pianist and composer in his own right, offers descriptions of each his mentor’s works for keyboard and its movements. In describing one of Beethoven’s performances of the the Piano Sonata No. 27, Czerny notes that the composer changed tempos seven or eight times in one movement. “[But] everybody is afraid to do this today, to change the tempo in a movement,” Buchbinder said.
As a further aid to his extensive research on Beethoven, Buchbinder has collected 39 complete editions of the composer’s sonatas. “You won’t believe it, but my favorite edition is by Franz Liszt,” he said. “He admired Beethoven, and he made editions not only for the sonatas but for the string quartets, the piano trios, for everything. We know that Franz Liszt was not such a bad pianist, but you don’t find one [added] fingering in his editions. Only the original by Beethoven.” Too many later editions have included what he called “stupid fingerings” that have little to do with Beethoven’s original intentions.
Add it all up, and few artists today have a closer relationship with Beethoven and his music than Buchbinder. But that doesn’t stop the pianist from dreaming of traveling back in time and sitting invisibly for 24 hours in a room with the composer he reveres so much — “just watching and listening to him.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.
TOP: Rudolf Buchbinder performs in an SCP Piano recital in June. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019