Buchbinder plays Beethoven

featuring Rudolf Buchbinder and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra

The short version of the story is that I had high expectations for this event, and I was still blown away. Magnificently wonderful.

About three months ago, I was able to hear all five piano concertos from Prokofiev’s pen, and perhaps it’s more a side effect of Prokofiev’s idiom and the fact that they were all played in one fell swoop (with only one intermission instead of the originally-planned two), but it was a little bit overwhelming.

Don’t get me wrong, it was outstanding to hear all five of the composer’s concertos. Believe it or not, up to that time, I’d not heard a single of his five concertos live, not even the third.

And somehow, I’ve gotten to this point in my concertgoing career without ever having heard four of Beethoven’s five piano concertos performed live. I heard the third in a midweek concert (that rare thing) from the NSO about six months ago or so, but never even had the chance to hear The Emperor played live. But that did indeed change this evening.

The TSO is one of our great local orchestras, an ensemble I see with some regularity, but this time they’ve been whisked away from their normal ticketing agency to the much more (ostensibly) elitist (translation: pretentious) MNA, who handles many of the big-ticket stars who roll through town, which means higher ticket prices and a pain in the butt to buy tickets. But I got mine, and for this comprehensive reading, we got two separate concerts.

Beethoven’s works are, granted, longer than Prokofiev’s, and Buchbinder is touring the entire island here, giving concerts in the south as well. This means, with his busy schedule, that we’ve got two concerts crammed into one day. The middle three concertos, (2-4) were played at a concert that began at 15:30, and 1 and 5 at the standard 19:30.

This concerto comes just a week after having posted an article on Beethoven’s fourth concerto, and missing the opportunity to include this fantastic interview with Mitsuko Uchida about performing the fourth at the Proms, from The Guardian. I love basically everything she says anytime, but especially about Beethoven. As follows:

When you ask a pianist which of the five Beethoven concertos they prefer, they invariably say the Fourth. Apart from the originality, it has a spirituality that is difficult to describe.

I had originally planned to say that the star of each concert would be the fourth and fifth concertos, respectively, but to be honest, what we were presented with today was an impeccable presentation of not just one or two, but five of the greatest piano concertos ever written, and I don’t think I felt that way before hearing them today. Let me try to explain.

The first concert gave us the second, fourth, and third concertos, in that order. Of course, the earliest works are also wonderful, but it is often the last two that get all the love. Had the three works of this first installment been performed in chronological order, we would have gotten something like the trajectory of the composer’s maturing from Mozart as inspiration (with the second and then directly with the third) to his own outstanding maturity in the fourth. But instead, what we ended up with was three pristinely presented performances of the highest artistic merit; I mean, this is like “my only Beethoven concerto cycle recording” good.

In any case, the coworker I had with me for this first afternoon concert of the two is about the age Beethoven was when he wrote the (actually first) second concerto. Youth, am I right? And while it is the least mature of the five, it’s still a beautiful work, and it was the first of what was to be an entire day, really, of very focused, sensitive music making.

Buchbinder’s playing is effortless and carefree and spontaneous. I do not, to my knowledge, own any of his recordings, but I might have to fix that. What was so impressive was not only that he was performing the works so extemporaneously, but that he also had to devote his energies to conducting. In this regard, though, it seems the Taipei Symphony made it easy for him, or else they made extremely effective use of rehearsal time, because they moved and breathed together in an impressive way, with just about every attack, every question-and-answer, every gesture in perfect but never rigid step. I suppose this is music that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to any ensemble anywhere, so that helps, but it seems they must have had some wonderful communication both before and during the performances, and just generally sharing the enjoyment of making exquisite music, but more on that later.

Next in line was no. 4, which I’ve just recently written about, and maybe the work of the five that I’d been looking forward to the most. Buchbinder and the TSO did not disappoint. In her Proms interview I linked above, Uchida describes the second movement  as follows:

I remember [the conductor] Kurt Sanderling saying the slow movement sounds as if God has sent a curse down on the earth in the orchestra, with the piano solo replying like a prayer for help – that is how beautiful it is.

A statement like that, that description, is so powerful… hard to forget. And after the heavenly, maybe even mildly philosophical first movement, we come to that short but deeply moving second movement. Being able to see this “prayer for help,” this dialogue, unfold live, with the weight and seriousness given it by the TSO, and Buchbinder’s pleading response, was magical. It’s things like that that come through in a special way when you can see a piece performed live, especially of this caliber, and it makes the finale, that triumphant heroic finale, all the more breathtaking. It was maybe a bit more relaxed a tempo than I’m used to hearing, but that’s because I’m used to hearing literally only ONE recording of this work. It’s just spectacular, so much so that I’d kind of hoped it would be the finale, the last piece on the program, but instead, it made for only the end of the first half, a spiritual one though. Uchida uses that word, and it’s perfect.

After the first half, we return for the Cm third concerto. This was the first of the piano concertos that I really fell in love with, and the only one I’d ever heard live previously. I suppose the reason for the ordering of the program was to get the fourth a bit earlier in the program, and maybe the third presents fewer challenges for the pianist… in any case, the third could not have been any more magnificent, convincingly (and justifiably) played like one of the greatest concertos ever penned. The first movement of Beethoven’s only minor-key concerto roared with the flavor of the composer’s iconic C minor, making  the glimmering major key moments that much more glorious. The middle movement wept beautifully, and Buchbinder played with a sensitivity that did justice to its sentimentality. The finale, though, was what put it over the edge. A bit brisker than I’ve heard before, it was vibrant and full of fervor and excitement, even almost a little folk-like (?), making a great argument for the logic of the ordering, and ending the first concert of the day on a superbly celebratory note.

It may have, just maybe, have been because I had some (very little) time to rest between concerts today on this incredibly long, stressful, sleep-deprived weekend, but I am convinced that Buchbinder’s reading of the first concerto, perhaps overlooked less than only the second concerto, was one of the most outstanding, elegant, pristine musical things I’ve witnessed. Because of the hype surrounding this concert series, the fancy ticketing agency, and world-class soloist, the inclination was there (at least for my sleep-deprived self) to think, absentmindedly, that Buchbinder had brought with him one of Europe’s finest orchestras, from Vienna or Germany or Switzerland or something, but no: this is our very own Taipei Symphony. I recognize faces.

I’m not saying they sound subpar in their other concerts; they don’t. In fact, I have been very impressed by any Beethoven they’ve played over the past few years. But there was something especially spectacular about this evening’s performance of the first. Really, about all the works, but maybe it’s just that I haven’t given the first a listen in so long and forgot the genius of Beethoven’s choice to make this work his first published concerto, for whatever good first impressions it would make. There were overtones that Buchbinder and the ensemble brought out in the work that I’ve maybe never heard before, maybe simple, but something like the thread of wildness and frivolity that was highlighted in the finale, or perhaps the overall opulence of the work in general, not just as a showoff piece, but a work of true genius and supreme craftsmanship, and all of this seemed the clear focus of the interpretation of the first concerto.

I can’t say enough about Buchbinder’s Emperor, though. This is clearly music he’s passionate about, all five concertos, as he shapes the phrase and connects with the orchestra while playing a spectacular Steinway. But there was something unique about op. 73, as if he couldn’t control his excitement for the music any longer. In fact, at multiple points through these concerts, the concertmaster and his assistant were grinning as they played, and Buchbinder himself smiled and gestured, becoming much more animated and mobile on his bench.

Again, all of the qualities you could mention, the reasons why people love this work so much (almost too much?), were all brought very much to the fore, played with unmistakable passion and beauty, as if this was the world premiere of a work of which the performers were very proud.

There is obviously a big and elegant and regal presence about the fifth piano concerto, and while this maybe is the most famous of the five concertos, I’ll say again that it seems to be the one that excited the pianist the most, like he could barely contain himself, which is saying something after having already played four concertos earlier in the day, and more the previous day.

Individually, each of these performances on their own is superb, outstandingly memorable, but together, as a marathon, they create an event, a kind of monumental accomplishment. That may sound sensationalist, but hearing them together like this is very much the classical music equivalent of eating your favorite movie trilogy all in one day: it either gets a little old somewhere through the process, or you’re convinced that this is a transcendental experience, overwhelmed by its epicness and unity and grandeur, and the result today was definitely the latter.

You get, even in just five works, a picture of the composer. Knowing something about them already certainly helps, as does having such a high quality performance, but there’s something physical or emotional about putting all these together and seeing the bigger picture they make. I feel like it’s one of those things that locals will talk about years down the road: “Remember the historic Beethoven cycle?” Okay maybe not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The Taipei Symphony was superb and Buchbinder’s treatment of Beethoven was sublime. I’ll be going to get those Vienna Philharmonic recordings I think. It was so nice to see the TSO in a real concert hall, with such a fine soloist, to be featured in a program like this that got such an overwhelmingly great audience response, as it should. Just. Bravo.

Who’s next though? Mozart’s five violin concertos? (Certainly not all of his piano concertos.) Rachmaninoff? Chopin? Been there. Liszt, too. Is the live cycle going to be a trend? If it’s anything like what we got today, sign me up.

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One thought on “Buchbinder plays Beethoven

  1. Very, very special occasion. I’ve never heard the TSO play better and their rapport with Rudolf Buchbinder was palpable. Beforehand I was worried about cultural overload. Not a bit of it, I wished we could have gone through the whole sequence again.

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