The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic hosted Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder for a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos, spread over two nights. I chose to hear the First, Second and Fourth concertos, of which the earliest two are lesser known and less frequently played here.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Philipp Horak
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Philipp Horak
The three concertos were lined up both chronologically and harmonically. Even though the B flat major concerto seems to be the second one, due to its later publishing, it was the first written almost at the same time as the Op.2 piano sonatas. And so the concert started with no. 2. It was followed by the Fourth in G major, harmonically in third relation with B flat major, which in turn is the dominant of C major, the tonality of the First Concerto Op.15 to be played as the closing piece. Unfortunately – or eventually luckily – the First was replaced by the Third (in C minor) in a last minute decision.

The Second, Beethoven’s most Haydenesque work, turned the almost fully packed hall into a Viennese hall of the Habsburg era. BIPO, directed from the keyboard by Buchbinder, as used to be the case during the Habsburg era, remained faithful to the score both dynamically and rhythmically and was very graceful in its rendition.

The G major Fourth, the most poetic of the piano concertos, is certainly the least aggressive as well. It has interestingly the same rhythmic cell as the Fifth Symphony, yet since it is major, has the rhythmic motif embedded in common-chord harmonies and starts with the short piano introduction extremely softly, the effect is utterly different: a peaceful, cashmere-like sound blanket wraps you up. BIPO and Buchbinder managed to create a wonderful atmosphere of delicate cheerfulness.

After a short break the Third was played. Starting in C minor, the key certainly related with Beethoven, going to its relative major in the second movement and closing up unexpectedly in C major in the third movement. This very well known concerto was interpreted faithfully to the score, well balanced and nuanced, as actually like the other two.

The tradition of playing and conducting Mozart and Beethoven was one of the late Friedrich Gulda’s (another Austrian gentleman) specialities. He was incredibly adventurous. Today there are few pianist-conductors following his steps. Among them, Daniel Barenboim seems to be the one who excels in adventuring, especially in Beethoven. Buchbinder’s renditions couldn't be described as adventurous at all. He sticks to the score in every detail. I was a bit surprised because Buchbinder is described as fastidious about accurate editions, tempo markings and articulation styles, according to an interview which he gave to The Guardian last summer, when he was going to play the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Edinburgh. Yet this time seemed to be different. The interpretation in Istanbul might have sounded somewhat “dull” to some ears, but I was amazed by the way Buchbinder mastered how to make every silence sing.

To build up an orchestra of this size with such a diverse repertoire is definitely not an easy task. It demands not only financial means but at least that much or even more time. As Buchbinder states in the short video, which BIPO shared on its Facebook page, this orchestra made huge steps forward. In this concert they were not only great followers but their playing was clear, transparent and balanced, with very nice dynamic contrasts. 

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