Tuesday 12 December 2023

RUDOLF BUCHBINDER - BEETHOVEN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday & Saturday 

(8 & 9 December 2023)

Sunday (10 December 2023)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 December 2023 with the title "Pianist Rudolf Buchbinder scores hat-trick in mini-Beethoven festival".

If there were one composer whom music-lovers never tire of, that would be Ludwig van Beethoven. Archetype of the long-suffering and tormented artist, he lived and died for his music to the detriment of all else. Also a virtuoso pianist, his five piano concertos and 32 piano sonatas defined the genre itself.


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s mini-Beethoven festival was helmed by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder leading from the keyboard. Four piano concertos were performed, the omission being the Fifth Concerto (the "Emperor"), presumably because Beethoven never played it in public having become stone-deaf by the time. 


This semi-cycle opened with Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major (Op.19), chronologically the earliest. Also the shortest and lightest, its debt to Mozart’s classicism was most palpable. However Beethoven packed in far more notes in its sub-30 minute duration besides also upping the level of virtuosity.


Buchbinder’s vision was one of litheness and verve, yet unafraid of projecting above the orchestra’s volume without resort to banging. Lyricism and elegance were hallmarks of the first two movements, while skipping syncopations of the Rondo finale never failed to raise a smile.   


By the time of Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor (Op.37), Beethoven had entered into his “Middle Period”, characterised by blazing Romanticism and passionate outbursts. The only minor key concerto, Buchbinder relived drama and tension of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement, culminating with possibly Beethoven’s most difficult solo cadenza of all.  


Amid the angst, there were moments of repose, such as in the slow movement’s chorale-like theme, voiced with clarity and beauty. The finale alternated between pathos and joy, but the latter won out with its C major coda of unfettered ebullience. Buchbinder’s encore was the finale from the Tempest Sonata in D minor (Op.31 No.2), played with an irrepressible spirit confirming one was well and truly in the Romantic era.


The second evening began with Piano Concerto No.1 in C major (Op.15), a later and more expansive work than the Second Concerto. Buchbinder kept its textures light and buoyant, the first movement’s climax culminating with a descending octave scale instead of the sweeping glissando favoured by others. He also chose to play the less often heard cadenza No.1, tidily finishing off what Beethoven had left incomplete.


The five solo bars that opened Piano Concerto No.4 in G major (Op.58) were plain-spoken, but the inexorable music built up to yet another mighty cadenza, where Buchbinder held a surprise up his sleeve. By altering one single note, he also shifted the tenor of the narrative. There were no histrionics to the slow movement’s Orpheus taming the Furies, and the rollicking Rondo that completed both concertos were pure expressions of joyous elation. His encore of the Pathetique Sonata’s finale was a sneak preview of the following day’s recital.


Sunday’s matinee showcased four piano sonatas including the three most popular with nicknames. Many piano students will toil over the Pathetique (Op.13), Moonlight (Op.27 No.2), and Appassionata (Op.57) Sonatas, and most will get the notes right. However few truly capture the spirit of Beethoven – his loves, passions, tragedies and consolations – all of which Buchbinder breathed into these hackneyed classics. The concluding movements, in particular, were imprinted with the thunderous finality of wills and testaments. As a bonus, Beethoven’s little Sonata in G major (Op.14 No.2), which bore no nickname, showed the gruff German also had a sense of humour.


Buchbinder’s final encore was not by Beethoven, but Soiree de Vienne by Alfred Grunfeld, a delectable medley of Johann Strauss melodies. Four concertos and four sonatas over three concerts showed why the septuagenarian Buchbinder is regarded the echt-Beethovenian of our time.


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