Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)

Recorded May 2011 in the Großer Saal of the Musikverien, Vienna
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88883745212 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 51 minutes
Reviewed: February 2014
One might wonder that with so many recordings of this repertoire – stretching back nearly nine decades – do we really need any more, while also noting that Sony Classical is currently competing with itself given that Leif Ove Andsnes is similarly documenting this music as both soloist and director. Of course, one wouldn’t want to be denied a fresh view of this music – and, make no mistake, Rudolf Buchbinder’s survey is 5-star in quality.
Having the Vienna Philharmonic on hand is no small advantage, of course, and throughout one is aware of these musicians’ seasoned and charismatic contribution, responding with pleasure and insight to Buchbinder’s leadership and playing. No sooner has the lengthy orchestral introduction of Piano Concerto No.1 got underway than one knows something special is being offered by way of this spacious and regal preparation. If the tempo is unusually roomy, but never sluggish, Buchbinder is perceptively paving the way for his own contribution, which is classically crisp, sparkling and dynamic, and also giving the Vienna Philharmonic the opportunity to make chamber music with its fellow Austrian, which these artists seize with distinction. The first movement emerges as thoughtful and expressive but always animatedly purposeful. Buchbinder chooses a lesser-performed Beethoven cadenza (there are three), not the really huge madcap one, but something that is nearly as diversionary, a mix of heroic and rumination; it works well and leaves in no doubt Buchbinder’s musicianship and virtuosity. Following which the slow movement is a perfectly turned and eloquent song, the VPO strings sweetly expressive and the clarinet solos full of romantic invitation. The finale, with its jazzy episode, isn’t pushed beyond speed limits; rather it is given with shape, clarity and, when needed, swing. The Second Concerto (written before the First) is also joyous, full of infectious life from the off, music by a young man, the lyricism savoured, the solo part delivered with brio by Buchbinder, a senior artist these days; he was born in 1946 in Czechoslovakia. His experience shows, but one senses his enjoyment at now recording this timeless music and also his deep feeling for it, which the central Adagio intensely reveals. The finale is spirited without being showy. That’s not the Buchbinder way, but he certainly relishes all the incident.
With the shadowy and troubled C minor Piano Concerto, the Vienna Philharmonic turns on a sixpence for a stern if vivid introduction, to which Buchbinder is equally severe yet driven in his contribution, the tempo urgent to reveal passionate declamations; this is edge-of-seat music-making, the cadenza red-hot. With a slow movement of molten loveliness and a finale both sprightly and lucid that reaches the witty and victorious coda (light out of darkness) by stealth, this is a truly notable version – from scowl to smile in 35 minutes.
So too the sublime and wonderful Fourth Concerto. Rarely has a pianist begun the work in so gentle and confidential a manner as Buchbinder does here. It’s so alluring. He and the VPO invest so much sensitivity and sympathy into this great masterpiece that its poetry predominates, but typically there is no lack of bearing or demonstration while searching out the infinitesimal. I wish Buchbinder had chosen Beethoven’s ‘other’ first-movement cadenza (the one that Brendel and Gilels championed) even if his playing of the now-standard one is patrician. With the confrontational slow movement, the pacifist Buchbinder calms the belligerent strings with the most virtuous of phrases, the bully-boys cowering and then joining in harmony with the pianist. The finale once again benefits from making something of the notes rather than careering through them. Finally a striding-forward ‘Emperor’ Concerto, less hectoring than some, given with elation and musing, the slow movement suggestive of a starry night, Buchbinder’s softness beguiling, and the finale, which can sometimes seem so repetitive, has a real spring in its step, the rondo element hurdled; listen out for a rather vocal pianist at 2’48!
With a vibrant, well-balanced recording, soloist and orchestra as equal partners – the only way it could be given these musicians’ rapport, and which also preserves the ‘golden’ acoustic of the Musikverein’s Großer Saal – these stellar (live) performances, with applause retained, could not be better presented. They are a treat and a tonic and unreservedly recommended. Don’t miss!

 

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