One of today’s legendary performers, Rudolf Buchbinder has appeared in concerts with renowned orchestras and conductors all over the world for more than 50 years. For his 70th birthday in the 2016/17 season, he was celebrated in such venues as the Carnegie Hall in New York, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Musikverein in Vienna and the Berlin Philharmonie. Other highlights of this anniversary season were concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra led by Christian Thielemann and tours with the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. At the invitation of Mariss Jansons, Rudolf Buchbinder served as Artist in Residence with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra named him an Honorary Member. The 2017/18 season sees his return to the Staatskapelle Dresden, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Filarmónica della Scala, among others, and to the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons.

Mr. Buchbinder’s repertoire ranges from Bach to contemporary music. He has documented this broad artistic range with more than 100 recordings, many of which have won awards. His readings of the works of Beethoven, in particular, have set new standards. With his cyclic performances of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, he has contributed significantly to the development of the performance history of these works. To date, he has performed this cycle more than 50 times in cities including Berlin, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dresden, Istanbul, Milan, Munich, Shanghai, St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Zurich. In 2014, he became the first pianist to perform all Beethoven sonatas during one summer season at the Salzburg Festival. The Salzburg cycle was recorded live and released on DVD. A live recording of Brahms’ two piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta was released on DVD and CD in 2016.

Mr. Buchbinder’s readings are based on meticulous study of source material. An avid collector of historic scores, he owns 39 complete editions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Furthermore, his library contains an extensive collection of first prints, original editions and copies of Brahms’ two original piano concerto scores.

Rudolf Buchbinder has been the artistic director of the Grafenegg Festival since its founding in 2007. Under his leadership, it has developed into one of Europe’s foremost festivals for orchestral music. So far, Mr. Buchbinder has published two books so far: his autobiography “Da Capo”, as well as “My Beethoven – Life With the Master”.


„The greatest natural pianistic talent" - a portrait by Joachim Kaiser

When Rudolf Buchbinder, as he jovially recounts, once met Friedrich Gulda at the Munich hotel “Vier Jahreszeiten”, a very characteristic conversation took place between the two artists, who both greatly appreciated each other as pianists. When Gulda asked him where he was going, Buchbinder answered truthfully: “to the concert for my Beethoven cycle.” to which Gulda replied: “Say, aren’t you bored of Beethoven yet?” Buchbinder responded as follows: “To be honest, the question is completely incomprehensible to me, because I always discover something new in such masterpieces ...” Overly sceptical readers may consider that mere lip service, although Buchbinder also repeatedly expresses this sentiment in his memoirs. “You may overindulge and get bored of some foods. But you can never overindulge when it comes to playing the masterpieces of piano literature, even if you have performed them hundreds of times”, one passage reads. Buchbinder's confession sounds touchingly idealistic: “I aspire to experience the pinnacle of my pianistic career at the end of my life. Of course, I do not know when that will be ... which is a shame, in a way! Because in my profession you have never actually accomplished something - there is always more to be achieved.“

Anyone who has been closely acquainted with Buchbinder for a long time knows full well that all these statements are pure sincerity! For years I helped my friend “Rudi” moderate his Beethoven cycles at the Schleswig-Holstein-Festival, in Dortmund/Bochum, in Nuremberg ... That means I analysed every sonata, begging him for manifold quotes. And then, finally, he presented the work in context. This way I really experienced up-close how the sonatas continuously evolved, enriched, transformed in Buchbinder's soul. Not so much with regard to the pianistic, manual aspects, which were however certainly not neglected. But in terms of depth and content. Sometimes I failed to realise the extent of what I expected of him. Once, it was about the “Hammerklavier Sonata” Op. 106, I talked for almost 50 minutes. But he was not allowed to just sit there quietly and daydream, he had to pay close attention because he was always being asked for quotes, and then finally, after this exhausting discourse, he would present the most difficult sonata of the piano literature.

The question as to why great music can captivate an artist for life, even if all he strives for is “simply” to bring the compositions to life faithfully, without violating them - this question can be answered as follows: Meaningful classical music contains a wealth of nuanced spiritual shapes, expressions, experiences and insights, of which non-musical contemporaries have no inkling. Such music is like an infinite reservoir of emotional experience! It teaches us to perceive even what is exceptionally delicate, intricate, differentiated. Mendelssohn was certainly right when he once declared that it is not true that music is meaningless and vague and that national language is clear and concrete. Because tones have infinitely more intermediate stages of shaped feelings than there are words to name all these nuances. And that's what a great pianist takes on.

In coping with the challenges posed by the works of traditional art and the “classical modernism”, Rudolf Buchbinder is helped by some remarkable artistic and human peculiarities. First of all: To me, he is the greatest natural pianistic talent I ever have encountered in my life. He never has to write down fingerings, and he doesn’t do it even when faced with the most intricate difficulties! The fingers find their way by themselves. Enviably, he can firmly rely on that. He states: “There are three types of fingerings: the one you study, the one you recommend to colleagues, and the one you find yourself doing at the concert.” The concept of “finding yourself doing something” reveals how amazingly innate Buchbinder's natural talent works. Such talent could lead to carelessness. But for that the compositions are too sacred to him, too dear. Which leads to the second special peculiarity: Buchbinder studies urtext editions respectfully and meticulously, he seeks and finds errors and does not take anything for granted. His perhaps most important, but by no means most spectacular third peculiarity: He is completely free from any affectations. It is impossible to identify any “airs” with him. Any helpful tick or trick that pushes the artist’s personality in front of the work. His interpretations when he masters Mozart concertos with a cantabile, intimate tone, when he seems to provide the piano's poignantly painful answers in the dramatic dialogue in the Andante of Beethoven's G major Concerto a hesitant hundredth of a second too late, which seems to conceal so much trepidation, fear, pain - all this comes straight from the heart of the matter. His elementary, musical freedom from all affectations makes him sensitive to the subtle or crude exaggerations of some of his colleagues. For instance, ever since Sviatoslav Richter once performed Schubert's great B-flat major Sonata ludicrously expressively slow, it has now become almost fashionable to force Schubert's sorrowful andante phrases as adagios or even largos in order to illustrate their mournfulness. But the pianistic high priests of adagios do not realize how much they miss Schubert's idiosyncratic truth. Because with Schubert there is a disheartened andante ambling, which must not be turned into a grave adagio funeral march, and certainly not a melodramatic largo - and the ethereal despair of which is incredibly difficult to get right. It is with such an aura of depressive ambling that the first song of the “Winterreise”, the second movement of the Great C major Symphony (“andante con moto”), should begin, and in which the middle movements of the Great A major Sonata (DV 959) and particularly the mysterious B flat major Sonata (DV 960) must commence. Only the slow movement of the C minor Sonata (DV 958), where Schubert evidently consciously alludes to Beethoven, is actually of the same kind as the A flat major adagios that young Beethoven liked to compose.

In listing Buchbinder's remarkable qualities there is one I have forgotten, which is perhaps the rarest - his complete lack of vanity. This is not something he has to “force upon himself”, it is not false modesty for the sake of being liked. He simply cannot help it. He detests pompous self-importance, grandiose posturing. He responds objectively and friendly. He would certainly also like to argue about whether it is really appropriate to juxtapose contemporary light music, pop music and traditional serious music as similar forms of entertainment. Of course there may be enchanting light music and mind-numbing symphonies. But the respective qualities or weaknesses have nothing to do with each other. Great traditional music absorbs the incomparable history of the language of serious music, which has been differentiated over centuries. Bach's Mass in B minor contains a huge history of church music. Beethoven's Sonata Op. 110 reaches back through the centuries with its recitative and “Johannes Passion” arioso, as do Wagner's “Meistersinger” and his “Parsifal”. Even the most successful manifestations of powerful film music or pop song production have completely different qualities. Do they not? I would also like to talk about Buchbinder's opinion that anyone who plays Bach on a Steinway should in no way try to play historically on a modern piano.

Final question: What is actually behind Buchbinder's great reluctance to listen to his own recordings after they have detached themselves from him? Is this an almost superhuman lack of vanity? Or might he even fear that he will rob himself of his free-flowing art if he meets it in the acoustic mirror?

Joachim Kaiser (2004)