After this year, the Lucerne Festival will be discontinuing its Piano series in November as well as its Easter series, both of which have been regular features in the programming hitherto. The KKL management took a decision to focus on – and put collective energies into – its superb summer concert offering. For fans of fine piano, that made this autumn’s piano series all the more reason to visit Lucerne’s superb concert hall.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Marco Borggreve
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

That said, the celebrated Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, with a seven-decade career of performance behind him and as a Beethoven interpreter of the very first order, has tremendous drawing power. Many who had heard his first concert of three Beethoven Piano Concertos the evening before were back on board at the second concert to hear him complete his Beethoven “journey”, playing again with the fine configuration of the Festival Strings Lucerne, Daniel Dodds, concertmaster.

The evening began with the tender tonal musings of the Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. The first movement Allegro con brio was introduced with a rhythmic and harmonic pattern that sounded something like a woven texture. A huge crescendo diverted listeners’ attention before the solo piano entered, whose score is punctuated by unexpected pauses that serve to boost innate tension. Both a short, but poignant oboe solo and the descending scales of the tutti made for music that was close to celestial.

In the following Largo, the clarinet picked up the piano theme in an emotive solo, while in the Rondo, Buchbinder pushed the tempo, giving the movement’s ending real kick. it was almost as if Beethoven himself were looking over his shoulder with an excited, “Look here, look what I can do!” In the third movement, too, the piano’s interplay with the flute was nothing short of enchanted.

The Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major that followed after the interval was equally memorable. Buchbinder’s sweeping gestures over the piano seemed almost as if he were greeting an old friend, and the melody of the resonant horns nicely enriched the thick fabric of sound. As the tension mounted, the pianist even jerked up from his stool to pull the players up into even a higher plane of melodic euphoria. Buchbinder’s own fingerwork – roaming up and down the scales, sometimes seeming not even to look at the keys – was truly breathtaking.

In the Adagio, the strings’ pizzicato was somewhat diminished in volume, but was highly precise, and the evolution from one motif to the next was swelling and organic. As musicologist Jörg Handstein wrote in the programme notes, in the Rondo “the piano and orchestra exchange gestures or simply take turns – out of the pure joy of playing”. Buchbinder emphatically rolled his head from left to right with the tempo, while a timpani roll prefaced a stirring ending: a “detonation of a last rocket” by the piano itself. In sum, the second evening of Buchbinder’s Beethoven journey in Lucerne was again sublime, and the collective body of fine musicians all gave a stellar performance.

*****