250 years after his birth, Beethoven’s piano oeuvre remains a glorious and deeply complex mystery, a wide plain onto which I escape every day to take in new perspectives. When I look into Beethoven’s mirror – and this makes sense as Beethoven resembles the centre of my musical thinking – I first and foremost observe the gain in liberty that I have acquired through studying his life and work.

Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

For the Beethoven anniversary in 2020, I have launched into two big projects: firstly, I rerecorded all the Diabelli Variations, together with a selection of 50 commissioned variations by contemporaries of the publisher Anton Diabelli: Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert and the eleven-year-old Franz Liszt, to name but a few. Additionally, I commissioned contemporary composers, such as Tan Dun, Jörg Widmann and Toshio Hosokawa, to write new variations of Diabelli’s waltz. Parallel to my Diabelli project, I have recorded all five piano concertos afresh – this time with five different orchestras and conductors. I’ll explain later why this diversity was so important to me; at this point I will only say the following: I enjoy conducting these concertos from the piano, but I was looking forward even more to the exchange and dialogue with five different conductors and orchestras. In preparation for the anniversary year, I constantly found myself in a conflict between Beethoven’s solo and orchestral works, between the intimate and intellectual Diabelli cosmos and the grand, audience-appealing piano concertos.

Of course, Beethoven wrote his concertos first and foremost for successful performances at the so-called academies. Up until the Third Concerto he performed the piano part himself and took a share in the box office profits. It is proven that Beethoven performed his own concertos at least seven times in the years between his Vienna debut at the Burgtheater in 1795 and the Theater an der Wien in 1803. The review of the Third Concerto at his last performance never fails to amuse me: “Less felicitous (and new!) was the following Concerto in C minor, that Mr v. B., usually known as en exquisite piano player, couldn’t perform in a satisfactory manner for the audience.” It is reassuring to know that, in the end, this review didn’t stand in Beethoven’s way to delighting the Viennese audience.

Beethoven’s solo works, especially the late pieces and the Diabelli Variations, had a completely different purpose. Of course, they went into print as well and were supposed to sell, but they remained unplayable for the majority of Vienna’s amateur musicians and, even on professional concert platforms, they were eschewed for a long time. It was only 30 years after completion – and long after Beethoven’s death – that the Diabellis were publicly performed for the first time (by Hans von Bülow). You could say that although Beethoven wanted to directly move the audience with his concertos, his late solo piano works were theoretical practical studies on music itself, about its past, its present and an exploration of possibilities in its harmonic future.

Manuscript showing Beethoven's cadenza to the Third Piano Concerto
© Public domain | Wikicommons

As part of rediscovering and restudying the piano concertos and retracing their history for the Beethoven anniversary, something very exciting caught my eye. It has to do with the cadenzas. If you look at the composition span between his First Piano Concerto (1794) and his Fourth Concerto (1804), it is striking that Beethoven only wrote his cadenzas for all these concertos back-to-back in the years 1808-09, thus at a time when he was completing his cadenza-less Fifth Concerto and at the same time as he worked on his cadenzas for Mozart’s D minor Concerto and the cadenza for the piano version of his (originally cadenza-less) Violin Concerto. It is obvious that, at some point, Beethoven – to say it casually – must have been bitten by the “cadenza bug” and therefore decided to embellish all his major works with written-out cadenzas in one go.

In doing so – and I find this very fascinating – he almost raised the composition of the cadenza to its own art form. It is especially vivid in the cadenza of the Second Concerto; given its length and spectacle, it’s almost a piece on its own.

It is striking that Beethoven abstained from writing another work in this genre for the last 19 years of his life after completing his Fifth. Maybe it simply didn’t seem adequate to him any more – especially compared with the competing form of the symphony – to meet his own expectations of a revolutionary sound ideal. Henceforth, he applied his uncompromising radicalism to his string quartets, the late sonatas or piano works like the Diabelli Variations.

In order to better understand the first concertos, it’s helpful to look at the cadenzas as well. It’s significant that Beethoven’s ingenious codas usually follow these cadenzas, those moments in which he lets us look into the light of infinity and can make for goosebumps and tears onstage. In the First Concerto it is the dialogue with the clarinet, in the Second the coda of the second movement and, until today, I can’t understand how such a young person was able to write such mature and wise music. In the Third Concerto, the coda of the first movement rings out almost as an elegiac reminiscence, and in the first movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto it is the dialogue with the oboe. In all these magical moments, Beethoven, in a wondrous way, is able to let time stand still.

For me it seems all the more important to refer to the manuscripts of Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, to get a feel for Beethoven’s own approach to his piano concertos. Because this is the astonishing thing about Beethoven – he himself was an exceptionally gifted piano virtuoso and possessed such a compositional craft that he could tell us exactly what to expect from the performer. Sometimes it wasn’t enough for him to specify a pianissimo. Instead, there are phrases in which Beethoven reminds us of this particular pianissimo every second bar. It’s almost as if he wrote into the score: “I know you, my dear pianist colleague, but just because this part is fast, you don’t have to play louder!” It is beyond me why these repeats were left out in some Beethoven editions.

Rudolf Buchbinder
© Philipp Horak

I’m often asked what my thoughts are while interpreting Beethoven. My answer is simple. The thinking has to take place long before that. Once you play the first note, you are in Beethoven’s good hands, and you are well-advised to simply follow him. Hardly any other composer navigates us so safely through the wide sea of his creativity like Beethoven. All he asks from us is: knowledge and trust!

In the case of the piano concertos we can luckily fall back on the descriptions by Carl Czerny and I can thoroughly recommend his essay On the Proper performance of all Beethoven's works for piano to every pianist. Particularly important – like a leitmotif in the descriptions of the piano concertos – is Czerny’s redundant admonition of Beethoven’s constant warning not to fall behind, for example in the Adagio of the Fifth Piano Concerto.

Czerny tells us that Beethoven was inspired by “religious songs of devout pilgrims”. “And the performance of this movement has to utterly express the holy peace and devotion that lies in this picture. The Adagio (alla breve) must not drag…” At this point it is recommended not to interpret the word “Adagio” as an order to drag, but to rather understand it literally, to play “for your own comfort”.

It is often little compositional things that reveal what Beethoven wanted. For example, in the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, the – by now luckily accessible – autograph score indicates a slur over the first two bars. It would be wrong to divide this beginning – and it is often done by orchestras – into two phrases (one per bar), because one phrase guarantees that the strings don’t drag, and one slur accommodates all notes. I’m fascinated – especially when I conduct the concertos – by these little technical moments which teach us so much about our interpretations.

Of course, the piano concertos don’t only excel in their otherworldly moments. Beethoven also brilliantly plays with the grand, dramatic and heroic gestures or with his typical swing elements, as I like to call them. There’s at least one of them in every concerto. I remind you of the third movements of the first two concertos or the “off-beat constellation” in the Fifth, in which the right hand plays in 3/4 time while the other one serves in 6/8.

Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

I find that what makes Beethoven’s five piano concertos so special and what distinguishes them are their differences, that – compared with Mozart – you cannot define a distinct development. They are independent works with different temperaments. And that is the exact reason for me to record the concertos with five different orchestras and five different conductors in the anniversary year. The First Piano Concerto – I like to call the second movement Beethoven’s “Clarinet Concerto” (Beethoven used timpani, trumpets and clarinets for the first time in his orchestra) – I’ve recorded with Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester. The Second Concerto, which Beethoven wrote for his own pianistic purposes and, for me, depicts the definite transition from Mozart to a new period, was the last concerto I was granted to record with my dear friend and soulmate, that unique conductor Mariss Jansons with his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Maybe the coda of the second movement of this concerto describes the world where Mariss resides these days, in the light of infinity. The Third Piano Concerto I’ve recorded with Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic. For the Fourth, which is commonly seen as the beginning of the fusion of the symphony and the concerto, Christian Thielemann conducts the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden. And the Fifth Piano Concerto (which saw his first public performance with Carl Czerny at the Theater am Kärtnertor) I’ve recorded with Riccardo Muti and the Wiener Philharmoniker.

The music of Ludwig van Beethoven is my lifelong companion, and became almost like a mirror of my musical development. At home in Vienna, a bust of Beethoven sits on top of my piano. And every time I practise, I look at this person who is so dear to me – his grim look, his wild hair, his curious eyes – and quietly thank him for listening and understanding all my trials and tribulations for such a long time, in which I drift through his work in full admiration.

Rudolf Buchbinder performs the cycle of Beethoven piano concertos this season with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona, the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai, the Bamberg Symphony and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Buchbinder is an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been the artistic director of the Grafenegg Festival since its foundation in 2007. Click here for a link to Rudolf Buchbinder's upcoming performances.

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.