In an incomparably stunning performance that launched this year’s “Piano” festival in Lucerne. the seasoned Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder recently dazzled a packed hall over two evenings, playing all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Festival Strings Lucerne. The first concert was devoted to the Second, Third and Fourth concertos.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Marco Borggreve
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

The pianist has spent more than 60 years performing these and other of Beethoven’s works with renowned orchestras around the world and confesses that Beethoven “is a central point, not strictly in my repertoire but also in my life.” Needless to say, his bond to Beethoven comes close to genetic. Here in Lucerne, he came onto the stage seeming calm and casual enough to be mistaken for someone going to the corner store. And while, with his shock of shoulder-length light-brown hair, he might double for a youthful Richard Wagner, he would go on to show his own brand of genius.

The concert began with the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, a work whose style Beethoven loosely adapted from Mozart, but which is hallmarked by its extraordinary sense of contrast and drama. From the very start, Buchbinder’s posture – like a Romantic figure bent into a “C” over the keys – altered only slightly when, as conductor, he pointedly gestured to the other musicians. He might flick a few fingers, nick his chin, rotate his left palm as if to say, “here, stir it up.” His subtle, spot-on direction was enhanced by concertmaster Daniel Dodds, who turned to face the strings, his back often to the audience, but his whole body’s athletic gestures and direction, emphatic.

The concerto’s long Allegro, which included a technically brilliant cadenza, was apparently intended by Beethoven to “show off” the mastery of his craft to his contemporaries in Vienna. Yet from the start, Buchbinder was far more artist than showman. His first solo in the second movement, the Adagio, was taken slowly, even with a certain languor. When the orchestra took over, the players showed complete mastery of their composite parts, the silvery, youthful-sounding flute and stellar oboe shining particularly, while Buchbinder, in rare moments of rest, sometimes laid his palms on his knees, simply nodding to cue select entrances. In the playful and forceful Rondo, the music crackled with energy and verve, the pianist seeming almost in conversation with the keys and offering a jubilant ending with the same conviction one might bring up to win a vocal argument.

The Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major began with music as close to celestial as any can get, a sublime oboe, flute and bassoon parts adding markedly to the rich orchestral sound. Here was a perfect calibration between orchestra and soloist: a whole panoply of the composer’s bright and optimistic expression; whether romantic, serene, or intense. The Andante con moto was upbeat and colourful, Buchbinder's lively tempos and sense of contrast, enriched by demonstrative musical questions and answers. In the finale, which brimmed with delight and triumph, Buchbinder jumped to his feet a couple of times to spur an even greater burst of orchestral sound.

After the interval, the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor showed what the Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny once sited as “grandiose”: it reflected more heroic pathos than the earlier works and would serve as a prototype for the concerto form throughout the 19th century. Showing himself especially alert to subtle phrasing, particularly at the end of the first movement, Buchbinder’s solo parts were as magical as to herald an appearance of Shakespeare’s Titania and her Oberon. In the final Rondo, by contrast, the pizzicato of the strings launched a more playful, folkloristic spontaneity and a superb clarinet injected a mellow sentimentality. No surprise: after the huge crescendo, the merrymaking by such a brilliant soloist and musicians brought down the house. Together, Buchbinder and the Festival Strings Lucerne had simply turned the evening over to Beethoven's infectious joy.

*****