RudiB3Guest post by Michael Johnson

The latest edition of the Aix Music 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 has become the realization of a dream he has nurtured since childhood.

A highlight was Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder who played the five Beethoven piano concertos while conducting the Sachsische Staatskapelle of Dresden from the keyboard. He accomplished this 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 back-to-back concertos, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the “Teddy Bar” of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his age, his stamina, his piano preferences, and 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. (Snorts) I once played the two Brahms concertos in one evening!

But you also conduct from the keyboard. That must be stressful, leading this collection of prima donnas….

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.

You have played the five concertos before in one day.

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

You are not intimidated by such a large task?

No. Why should I be ?

Well, because there are a lot of notes!

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)

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

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

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

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, dressed in short pants. (Laughs)

In what order you play them?

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.

Do you have a favourite among the five?

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.

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.

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. When he came to Vienna, Mozart was God. Beethoven was always jealous. It took him 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.

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

Not really. 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:

(interview continues after the video)

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

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 perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, this is only a part of my repertoire.

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

I admit that I 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.)

You don’t worry about this increasing nervousness?

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.

Do you worry about memory lapses?

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

You have said you want to die on the keyboard. Is this true?

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 favourite. He was very ill and knew this would be his final performance. After his Schubert, he was taken to hospital where he died.

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

Look. I have to play. But I only play when I am able to concentrate. I have always practiced only two hours a day, and sometimes I don’t touch the piano for one week. I am active. I just signed exclusive contract for Deutsche Grammophon.

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

And when did you feel this freedom arrive?

AYou 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.

What about phrasing?

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.

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

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.”

You always choose Steinways for your concerts. Why not a Viennese Bösendorfer?

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.

“Too glassy”, as some pianists say?

The point is that Steinway is the most neutral of all pianos. By this I mean that nothing comes from the piano, the way it is built. You must treat a woman like the Steinway, it’s the same. When 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.

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.


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

Portrait of Rudolf Buchbinder by Michael Johnson

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Acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been spending a lot of time with Beethoven: four years in fact, as Andsnes has journeyed physically and metaphorically through the five piano concerti to understand and interpret one of the greatest sets of works for piano ever written. This extraordinary journey ended, perhaps appropriately, at this year’s Proms, the greatest festival of classical music on the planet, where Andsnes performed to a packed Royal Albert Hall.

Along the way, Andsnes has been followed by award-winning film-maker Phil Grabsky and his Seventh Art team, and the result is a remarkably absorbing, insightful and beautifully-crafted portrait of both pianist and music. Following the chronology of the five concerti, we hear directly from this articulate and intelligent musician as he speaks honestly and humbly about the unique characteristics of each concerto, the development of Beethoven’s artistic vision, and his personal connection with this music. His decision to devote four years of his life to one single composer, and specifically the five piano concerti, is clearly one he relishes and he speaks of his special relationship with the music of Beethoven, which developed when he was still a young performer. We see Andsnes working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (with whom he has also recorded these works), practising at home and interacting with other musicians, including the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as well as friends, colleagues and family. These interactions are mirrored by glimpses, though Beethoven’s letters, of the relationship between the composer and his world. Detailed footage from the concerts in Prague forms the main structure of the film, offering the viewer wonderful shots of both pianist and orchestral musicians at work, as well as a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a busy international performing and recording artist.

Part composer biography, part personal diary, this intelligent and accessible film is a must for anyone who loves this music, or who has enjoyed Andsnes in concert or on disc. The film is released on 7th September and is being screened at selected cinemas across the UK (details of screenings here). View a trailer of the film:

Director Phil Grabsky says “I knew this exclusive journey with Leif Ove would allow me access to great performance – but I had no idea it would be this great. These became the best reviewed concerts of the past few years and I was on stage to record them. Even more importantly the music and Leif Ove’s intelligent and accessible insight creates a staggeringly interesting new biography of arguably the greatest composer of all time. (source: Seventh Art press release).

It has long been my ambition to perform all 5 Beethoven Concertos in one evening, and it is great to be able to do this in a concert in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund. This charity has done so much over many decades to support musicians who have fallen into difficulties of one sort or another and provides invaluable scholarship money to talented students. The icing on the cake is that this will happen in my old Alma Mater, the RNCM in its 40th anniversary year, with an orchestra comprising many of its students past and present, with the very talented young conductor Daniel Parkinson. (Martin Roscoe)

All five piano concertos in one evening, performed by Martin Roscoe, one of the UK’s most acclaimed and versatile pianists, and conducted by Daniel Parkinson, together with an introduction by John Suchet. This promises to be a marathon feast of music, culminating in Beethoven’s Fifth ‘Emperor’ Concerto in the final concert at 9pm. By presenting all the concertos in a single day, audience members attending all three concerts will be offered a unique window on Beethoven’s creative life, and insights into the evolution of the piano concerto in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, from the youthful post-Haydn Nos. 1 and 2, through the No. 4, which marked a major turning point in the development of the concerto with the piano entering before the orchestra, to the sweeping proto-Romantic and virtuosic No, 5, the ‘Emperor’.

The concerts take place at the Royal Northern College of Music on 5th October, from 5pm, and tickets are available now. For further information, please visit the Beethoven Piano Concerto Project website: www.beethovenpianoconcertos.co.uk

I recently interviewed conductor Daniel Parkinson for my Meet the Artist series. Read his interview here.

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