Pianist Or Artistic Chief, Buchbinder Is Purist At Heart

Rudolf Buchbinder (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
“I like to compare original editions,” says Rudolf Buchbinder. He refuses to accept markings not written by the composer.
(Photo by Marco Borggreve)
By Rebecca Schmid

VIENNA – The Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder is not a man of compromises. When he agreed to become intendant of the Grafenegg Festival in 2007, it was under the condition that he enjoy full artistic freedom. The day the administration imposes any financial restrictions, Buchbinder says he would quit.

Rudolf Buchbinder
Buchbinder now makes only live recordings. (Philipp Horak)

For several years, he has made only live recordings, the most recent of which, released by Sony late last year, features him as both soloist and conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic in all five Beethoven piano concertos. This past summer, at the Salzburg Festival, he performed the full cycle of Beethoven sonatas for the 50th time. From Oct. 16-21, he’ll be Stateside playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Thierry Fisher.

“I’m not a vacation person,” Buchbinder, 67, told me last year at his Vienna home. “I always have to stay busy.” The evening before, he had performed Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini with the Mariinsky Orchestra. His eyes sparkled, despite a long night of wining and dining.

Across from the coffee table Buchbinder’s wife had decked with home-baked strudel are two Steinway grands, tucked into each other back to back; a large white bust of Beethoven; and a wall full of scores. True to his uncompromising personality, Buchbinder has a passion for first editions. He refuses to accept any markings that weren’t written by the composer himself.

Rudolf Buchbinder (Basta)
“I always tell pianists not to just play the ‘Pathétique’ and ‘Moonlight’ sonatas.” (Basta)

“I like to compare original editions,” he said, pulling down a score of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. “There you also find mistakes. One doesn’t always know how much Beethoven controlled.”

He pointed to a passage in the third movement he said was interpreted incorrectly for years because of added dynamic markings. “The second bassoon has forte, the first doesn’t. The violins also don’t. Why? Because a sforzando is coming. You can’t play a sforzando if you have just played forte!”

Buchbinder is soloist and conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic for Sony.
Buchbinder plays piano and leads the Vienna Philharmonic on Sony.

Buchbinder takes it upon himself to learn every voice in the orchestra even when not conducting. “I compare it to a house,” he said. “The more solid the basement, the better I can design the architecture. If I experiment with the architecture, the house falls apart. The basis makes me much freer. But there it also has an automatic break which informs how far one can go with the freedom when one has it.”

This deep sense of the music is particularly on display in his interpretations of Beethoven. Performing a selection of sonatas last year at Berlin’s Philharmonie, part of a seven-concert series in which he explored the entire cycle, his immersion was so complete that he seemed to be singing his heart out, all the while articulating with light precision.

Buchbinder's Beethoven piano sonatas were recorded live in Dresden in 2010-11.
Buchbinder recorded Beethoven’s sonatas live in Dresden in 2010-11.

He managed to bring humor to the Scherzo of the Sonata No. 10 where many players cannot escape the composer’s intrinsic heaviness, while making the Allegro molto e vivace of the Sonata No. 13 fierce and brooding. His intimacy with every passage was so thorough that the pieces became vehicles for pure storytelling.

Buchbinder, far from seeing a performance of Beethoven’s complete sonatas as a Herculean task, calls it a journey of discovery: “There are all these treasures. That is the great thing about a cycle. It forces the audience to hear unknown works. I always tell pianists not to just play the Pathétique and Moonlight sonatas.”

All the more impressive is the fact that Buchbinder usually travels without scores. “I work very much with the head,” he said. “The only rule I have before concerts is to sleep.”

The pianist’s principles may speak to an older generation of musicians. “The problem today is that one doesn’t have patience,” Buchbinder said. “One used to plan a career over years, sometimes decades. Now the record companies and managers rely on sensationalism to manipulate the audience.”

Even in a country like Austria, where classical music is a leading cultural currency, Buchbinder laments a certain erosion of values. “There is hardly a country with as rich a legacy,” he said. “In Japan, they handle the Wiener Waltzer with white gloves. Here we are trampling on them with our feet.”

Grafenegg Festival
The Grafenegg Festival has built up a loyal local audience.

At the Grafenegg Festival, he takes special pride in having built up a local audience, with 40 percent coming from the surrounding rural region of Lower Austria. “People of the region identify with Grafenegg,” he said. “Some of them come to a concert for the first time. It doesn’t bother me if they applaud after the first movement. But they come. If only a small fraction of that carries into the future, one has won something.”

This past summer, the festival joined the European Union Youth Orchestra with conductors such as Semyon Bychkov and Vasily Petrenko. Buchbinder is also committed to presenting contemporary music in its entire spectrum. Composers-in-residence have ranged from Heinz Holliger and Tan Dun to Brett Dean and this year’s Jörg Widmann.

If Buchbinder has a guiding principle, it is to allow artists to perform whatever program they see fit. “As long as I am intendant, there will be no motto,” he said. “How often are mottos applied to a program after it is created? Just like a horoscope is written in a newspaper. An artist should play whatever shows him at his best.”

He considers the artistic mishmash in keeping with the festival’s architectural surroundings — the park grounds of a Gothic castle that now include an open-air amphitheater with modern sculptural design. “I always say that you can mix quality,” he said. “We have every style represented.”

Buchbinder’s unbending commitment to artistic standards may be what has allowed Grafenegg to flourish while other festivals are tightening their belts. “Not once did the administration say I couldn’t do something because it was too expensive,” he said. “One should never save on quality, but quantity. If you save on quality, the audience notices.”

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and The New York Times.