Those of us expecting this evening’s concert to open with the tender introductory chords to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto were in for a shock. The management had slipped in a contemporary work, without whispering a word about it in their publicity. The piece had the improbable title of 58˚58’/1˚19’E-300514, and was by the impossibly young-looking Aaron Parker. Although the decision to keep this piece quiet seemed timid, everything else about it was brave. Parker is evidently of the Morton Feldmann school of ambient, non-developmental, and above all expansive, music (John Luther Adams also came to mind). An inscrutably complex chord is constantly repeated at a quiet dynamic, with subtle changes gradually applied to the voicing and to the increasingly loose synchronisation. On top of which the percussion section move around freely, their contribution similarly muted but otherwise unrelated. For all the quiet dynamics here, this is music that makes bold statements, and is beholden to nobody. Look out for the name of Aaron Parker, he is going to be a distinctive and important voice in years to come, so long as his work titles don’t hold him back.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Philipp Horak
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Philipp Horak

When Rudolf Buchbinder did finally appear, he was well worth the wait. Buchbinder lives and breathes Beethoven. He is about to begin his 50th complete cycle of the sonatas, and his most recent book is entitled Mein Beethoven – Leben mit dem Meister. The Fourth Piano Concerto is one of der Meister’s quirkiest and most unpredictable works, and Buchbinder’s intimacy with the great man allows him to exploit that unpredictability at every turn.

He’s not a flashy pianist. His touch is very definite and his tone, while elegant, is always firm and focused. But his ability to bring the music to life, to inhabit each of the phrases, is extraordinary. On top of which, Buchbinder has an air of aristocratic sophistication, giving effortless authority to his every interpretive decision. And he had the audience in the palm of his hand. At the end of the first movement cadenza, his playing reduced to just a single melody line in the right hand in the moments before the orchestra re-entered: The expectation that greeted each note here was palpable from every corner of the hall.

Nikolaj Znaider is better-known as a violin soloist than as a conductor. That experience evidently serves him well when accompanying. He did an excellent job of keeping the orchestra in line with Buchbinder’s often unusual rubato. Not that the orchestra followed blind. A surprisingly large string section was employed, and, due perhaps to Buchbinder’s emphatic tone, few concessions were made to him by the orchestral players, who gave a satisfyingly symphonic reading of the score – the ideal complement to the soloist’s equally muscular approach.

As a conductor, Znaider is a protégé of Valery Gergiev (a connection that no doubt helped him to secure this evening’s engagement), but on the strength of his Mahler First Symphony he is clearly his own man. Unlike Gergiev, he doesn’t drive the music mercilessly, but rather finds nuances and shades in every phrase. (Also unlike Gergiev, he gives the third movement solo to a single double bass rather than the whole section.) The similarities come in the tuttis. Both conductors know that how far they can push this orchestra, and that the LSO players have an uncanny ability to maintain their tonal control even at the very loudest dynamics. The endings of the first, second and fourth movements were just stunning, not only for the raw energy, but for the way that the climaxes had been carefully prepared. Znaider puts similar efforts into the quieter music, but it doesn’t always come off. He didn’t quite manage the sense of pastoral stillness at the opening, for example, where the woodwind entries felt a bit random, as did the tempo changes. And the quiet interludes in the finale didn’t have the sense of urbane detachment we hear from Bernstein and his ilk. But for the most part this was a convincing and compelling performance, enhanced no end by the finesse and unassailable precision of the London Symphony players.