Author Topic: Rudolf Buchbinder Plays Beethoven, Take III  (Read 962 times)

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Offline Todd

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Rudolf Buchbinder Plays Beethoven, Take III
« on: October 21, 2017, 06:29:29 AM »

I figured it was about time I gave Rudolf Buchbinder's third complete cycle a try.  I mean, I've listened to all three cycles from the other pianists who've done the same thing*, so why not Buchbinder?  I've resisted this long only because I was hoping the 2014 Salzburg Festival performances would be released audio only, but since that has not happened yet, and since the set was available for forty bucks, I decided to wait no longer.  I decided to listen to the sonatas as presented rather than skipping around.

Starting with the first BD, it is clear Buchbinder's overall approach has not changed much over the years, but he seems to have refined and tightened it up with time.  His approach is still very serious, his playing lacks a wide tonal palette, and he tends toward somewhat quicker conceptions overall.  There's certainly nothing at all wrong with that.  The downside, if it's a downside, is that the early sonatas might sound a little less youthful, playful, or fun than they otherwise might.  The first sonata, which opens the cycle, withstands the style well, and indeed, the swift and tense Adagio comes off very well.  And as in his other cycles, Op 14/2 ends up sounding lighter and funner than Buchbinder's overall style might lead one to expect.  Buchbinder plays 27/1 in a fairly swift, no-nonsense fashion, with no eccentric or exaggerated gestures, but more than a bit of drive and grit.  It's classical style Beethoven through and through. 

Next up is the Tempest, and once again, Buchbinder doesn't dilly-dally, playing the Largo at a tense clip, and the Allegro at an even tenser clip.  Dynamic contrasts aren't especially wide, but forward momentum and drama are abundant.  Same with the swift Andante, which almost sounds Andantino.  There's no wallowing, no excess emoting here.  It's just bracing music, as is, predictably at this point, the stormy Allegretto, with Buchbinder poking out some bass notes to nice effect.  An outstanding performance.  Op 31/3 follows, and it ain't too shabby, either.  Quick, energetic, alert, fresh, and both serious and fun in equal measure, Buchbinder reminds me anew of why I always place such emphasis on these works.  His prior two recordings were also excellent, so it's no surprise this one is, too.  Buchbinder doesn't pussyfoot around with 10/1, which he launches with vim and vigor before pulling back a still not at all leisurely pace, before playing an Adagio molto that does sound rushed, though the tradeoff is fantastic dramatic tension for the work as a whole, leading as it does to a fast, clean, and exciting Prestissimo.  Buchbinder starts off Op 26 with a lovely Andante theme, and then proceeds to play nicely characterized variations at a pretty brisk clip and then he plays the Scherzo at something approaching a breakneck pace, with a couple audible slips obvious as he pushes forward.  Buchbinder backs off in terms of speed and intensity in the funeral march, presenting it somewhat coolly and defiantly as opposed to grand and heroically.  Works for me.  As does the slightly rough and definitely vigorous concluding Allegro.  Rather than going for something light next, something merely short, in the form of Op 54, follows.  The minuet theme is attractive and a bit swift, while the triplets section is extremely fast, with dynamic contrasts flattened a bit in the process.  Not at all surprisingly, Buchbinder plays the Allegretto fast, as well, though not as fast as the triplets sections, and imbues the playing with a fully satisfying energy level, especially in the borderline OTT coda.  The sonata comes off as light fun, as far as middle period Beethoven goes. 

It's back to early stuff next with Op 7, and Buchbinder keeps things quick, pinging out the dotted rhythm and pushing the melody a bit in places.  A bit more breathing room might be nice here, as it were, but one never has to worry about the piece sagging under Buchbinder's fingers.  Buchbinder finally slows things down a bit in the Largo, but it's really a comparative thing, because it sounds pretty peppy for its designation, and it's pretty straightforward, devoid of much in the way of attention-seeking rubato or dynamic extremes.  The Allegro quick and puckish in the outer sections and fiery in the trio, while the in the Rondo, there's a sense of actual relaxation and lovely lyrical playing in the outer sections, and even when the left hand playing adds a bit more heft, it never becomes intense.  Intensity is reserved for the Tempest-uous middle section.  The sonata is a bit more vibrant and fast paced than normal, and while not a tip-top choice, it makes for an invigorating listen.  The disc ends with the Mondschein.  The Adagio sostenuto is subdued and steady and evokes the proper mood, the Allegretto is quick and cleanly executed, and in the Presto agitato, Buchbinder defnitely gets the agitato part down as he plays with strong accents, solid rhtyhm, and nice, unyielding forward drive.  A solid end to a rock solid first disc.

BD two starts with the third sonata.  As expected at this point, Buchbinder plays in a straight-forward way, and here delivers virtuosity without overdoing it.  The work is all vibrant fun, except in the Adagio, which is light-ish yet urgent and darker, with sweet low notes.  (Buchbinder's got a badass left hand pinky.)  Op 49/1 follows, and Buchbinder keeps it light and fun, but even here he just presses right ahead.  No reason to back off entirely, especially if you can pull it off.  The Les Adieux comes next.  The opening movement is of the spirited variety, with comparatively little in the way of sorrow or undue weightiness.  Buchbinder plays the Abwesenheit with a sense of restless resignation and tense anticipation, as well as a little bit of vocalizing.  Das Wiedersehen bursts into being with joyous and vibrant playing, and rather impressive fingerwork.  The first unambiguously great early sonata, Op 10/3 follows, and here Buchbinder opens with a slower than expected tempo in the Presto, which is to say a pretty conventional one.  He keeps everything admirably clear, and the left hand playing bounces along nicely.  Buchbinder has no time for a slow and ponderous Largo, but he does see fit to imbue it with tension and drama, never letting the music sag, and belting out forte chords.  Sure, the climax could have been a bit louder, but it works splendidly as delivered.  The Menuetto is more charming than expected, offering a nice contrast to the prior movement, while the Rondo is smooth and effortless and light.  Superb. 

Op 101 follows, offering a first glimpse into Buchbinder's late career view on the late sonatas.  I don't know if I'd say that the Allegretto ma non troppo displays an especially inward looking aspect, nor is it really transcendent, but it is serene yet energized.  The Vivace alla Marcia, certainly is vivacious and forward moving, but the dynamic contrasts are too contained, which seems like a recording artifact.  One thing that's clear is that when right hand melody dominates, Buchbinder is in his element.  In Adagio ma non troppo the playing takes on slower form of serenity to excellent effect, and the Allegro ends with clear, bright, elevated contrapuntal playing of both nice clarity and even nicer musical value.  The sonata ends stronger than it starts.  From heavy to light, Op 10/2 follows, and while Buchbinder does not weigh it down or make it sound anything other than fun, he manages to sort of remove it from the early period and play it more as a little brother to 31/3.  That is, he comes closes to making it better than it is and he would have done so had he included the repeat in the Presto.  Even in its truncated form, it's outstanding, one of the better ones I've heard in at least few years.  Buchbinder plays Op 78 in a serious and swift manner, with less cantabile and more incisive playing in the first movement and a rollicking Allegro vivace.  Buchbinder does a good job of hinting at humorous gruffness while sounding adequately refined.  Next up is the last Op 31 sonata, or rather, the first.  Buchbinder starts off with a quick and sternly fun Allegro vivace.  He alternates emphasis between hands almost on a whim from the listener's standpoint, sometimes emphasizing the left hand a bit too much - until it's too melody-centered.  Particularly ear-catching the three or four hundredth time around are a couple times where he'll accent one or two bass notes out of the blue.  He plays the movement with so much enthusiasm and verve and wit, that the movement itself garners an ovation.  The Adagio grazioso, at only 7'50", is super-swift, and the right hand runs sound positively delightful.  (I'm sure I'm completely wrong, but Buchbinder dispatches them so well, that I can see him using these as practice exercises.)  The trills could be sweeter, I guess, but that's the only potential beef in the outer sections.  It might have been possible for Buchbinder to lighten up just a bit in the middle section, particularly with the too-pressed playing before the return of the opening material.  But had he done that, the insistent rhythmic snap of the movement would not have been so insistent and catchy.  Trade-offs.  In contrast to the "slow" movement, Buchbinder backs off a bit in the Rondo, playing with deliberateness, though the overall tempo still cannot be described as slow at all.  The playing speeds up a bit and while not overbearing, retains a somewhat serious demeanor pretty much throughout.  To be clear, any reservations I have are of the inconsequential sort.  Buchbinder delivers a superb Op 31 trio. 

The second disc ends with the Hammerklavier.  As in his earlier recordings, Buchbinder's overall approach is fairly swift at 38'-ish overall.  He starts with a 10'24" Allegro, and in this version, as recorded, his playing assumes more of a late LvB sound than the middle period approach of his earlier recordings.  He plays securely and keeps the piece moving forward at all times.  Buchbinder then plays the Scherzo at a skippy 2'18", accelerating the pace.  The Adagio falls on the fast end of the spectrum at only fifteen minutes, and as usual with such an approach, the music becomes more tense, and when it usually starts to sound desolate, Buchbinder actually speeds up a bit and makes the music sound almost angry and defiant.  (He also seems to get lost for just a second, but he makes a fine recovery.)  Only near the end of the movement does Buchbinder back off a bit, with the effect being one of exhaustion and resignation.  Good stuff.  The Largo sounds more like an Andante, with the pianist sounding as though he really just wants to get right to the fugue.  He keeps it quick and formal and comparatively light.  It's not baroque sounding, but one can hear the influence of the baroque in this classical take.  Handel would have been pleased as much as Beethoven.  While not the last word in clarity or executive brilliance, this nonetheless is the most satisfying, most late-LvB sounding of Buchbinder's recordings, though an A/B/C is needed to thoroughly workout qualitative differences.  That's probably a post-2019 initiative.  Another rock-solid disc.

The final disc opens with 2/2.  Buchbinder's playing is direct, light, and unaffected, with just right tempo choices, unless one will not accept Largos that sound closer to Andantes.  Op 14/1 follows, and here Buchbinder plays generally the same as in the preceding work, though maybe one could say that he pushes a bit too hard in some parts of the opening movement.  Op 28 follows, and Buchbinder opens with an Allegro taken at a comfortable pace and an overall relaxed demeanor.  The second melody displays a tenser sound, and Buchbinder's runs are just superb, and the climax sounds urgent without being overbearing.  Buchbinder plays the Andante at an ever so slightly swift pace, and when paired with his beautifully even staccato left hand playing, it keeps things slightly tense, again without overdoing it, and the middle section is delightfully playful in a studious sort of way.  The Scherzo is played very fast, to the point of sounding nearly jittery.  But it works, yes it does.  Buchbinder returns to a more flowing and lyrical approach in the Rondo, except for the middle section where he ramps up speed and dynamics to a satisfying degree and the dashed off coda.  It's an outstanding take on the sonata, and one worthy of comparison to the best. 

Next comes Op 90.  Buchbinder goes for a quick opener, not lingering over any note or chord, playing the runs quickly, and to the extent he changes up the style in the movement, it is generally to make the playing either faster or angrier.  This is one of the most biting and propulsive versions out there.  The second movement, suitably slower, retains a small degree of edge to go with its essentially lyrical if somewhat somber sound.  Another outstanding performance.  Next comes Op 57.  Given Buchbinder's playing to this point, I expected a fairly fast, strong, and possibly edgy performance.  That's basically what I got, though the expected edginess didn't materialize, and in it's place was a comparative sense of grandeur.  The Allegro assai has a nearly perfect blend of attributes, with only maximum dynamic contrasts missing, and that's due to the recording.  Buchbinder imbues his playing with ample drive and fire, but he never uses exaggerated rubato; he prefers to push ahead.  He keeps the Andante con moto at least taut and sometimes urgent yet pretty much always lyrical, then he plays the finale on the fast and nearly aggressive side, though again the somewhat less than ideal dynamics limit impact a bit.  That caveat noted, this is an exceptionally good Appassionata.  Buchbinder's style in this cycle also seems a good, if not great, fit for Op 22, and that's the case.  He plays the piece with great energy and drive, but sometimes it sounds bit too serious, a bit too uncompromising, though in Beethoven that's rarely the worst type of interpretive choice to make.  Op 49/2 finds Buchbinder lightening up a bit, with a charming Tempo di Menuetto. 

The Pathetique follows.  Buchbinder plays the Grave slow-ish and the Allegro fast and energetic, but his is a very classical approach, with no excess of any sort.  The Adagio cantabile sounds attractive but contained, and the Rondo closes out with a nice mix of suitable energy and outstanding clarity of the left hand playing.  Op 79 is straight-ahead and light almost to a fault in the first two movements - one might want a bit more out of the Andante for instance.  Or then again, one might not.  Buchbinder tosses in not a little charm in the Vivace, sweetly and humorously accenting some notes.  The Waldstein starts with a swift Allegro con brio with notable rhythmic swagger and left hand clarity.  The Introduzione is attractive and restrained and kind of cool, while the Rondo starts off restrained and attractive and only gradually builds up to faster playing, though Buchbinder never just plays fast to play fast, instead choosing and altering his tempi wisely while maintaining a nice overall tempo.  This is an instance, with the Prestissimo portion, where one might reasonably expect faster playing than is on offer, but what is there works very well, indeed. 

Buchbinder's cycle ends with the last three sonatas presented sequentially.  Buchbinder opens with a light and elevated Vivace ma non troppo that does a fine job of establishing a transcendent soundworld, and it contrasts with a potent and relatively swift Adagio espressivo, and as the movement goes on, the sound becomes more ethereal and transcendent.  The Prestissimo is potent but contained tempo-wise - not at all slow, just contained - and it keeps in the spirit of the opener.  Once again, Buchbinder accents some bass notes to excellent effect, too.  The final movement opens with a beautiful, serene Andante theme, and the first variation acts as an extension in a manner similar to Op 111.  The third variation is quicker, of course, with the canon more intense than the first part of the variation, and the material combines into a wonderfully cohesive whole.  The third variation is almost boogie-woogie-ish, pointing out the structural similarity between this as the variations of Op 111, and indeed as the fourth variation unfolds, this similarity becomes even more obvious.  Again, Buchbinder knows when to emphasize left hand playing to superb effect.  The fifth variation sounds suitably weighty and driven, and in the final variations he arrives early in Elysian Fields, with trills that would sound entirely at home in the last sonata, before arriving at the serene and lovely coda.  This Op 109 offers a qualitative step up from Buchbinder's preceding two recordings. 

Op 110 starts off gently and beautifully and transitions seamlessly to the more forceful exposition.  As the movement proceeds, Buchbinder sounds close to perfect, and cedes little to any other pianist in my listening experience.  The Allegro molto sounds similar to the second movement in Op 109 in that it sounds contained, and here almost idealized, an Apollonian musical utterance of great profundity.  The final movement opens with a slow, dark, beautiful, and somber arioso, that sounds almost like a lament or a dirge.  Buchbinder plays the fugue in a very slow and deliberate manner, but it works better than it should, almost sounding processional, or like a sketch from the Missa, with powerful forte playing.  The second arioso sounds tonally like the first one, but now there's a sense of resignation and acceptance.  The repeated chords sound ceremonial and don't really build up in volume in a truly satisfying way, but that ends up being the only minor complaint about the performance.  The inverted fugue starts as slow as the fugue, but as it moves forward, the playing becomes faster and almost exultant, the coda rapturous - all within the bounds of an Apollonian approach.  As with 109, this marks a qualitative step up from the prior two cycles. 

Op 111 starts with a Maestoso that is dark and brooding, almost like 31/2 grown up and more refined, and the Allegro section, underpinned by strong bass playing, but not especially fast, sounds less ominous and more like a final angry musical pontification, but one laced with the knowledge that the learned pronouncements will immediately be forgotten.  It's sublime fist shaking.  The Arietta, which comes basically attacca, is suitably slow and serene, but it is not especially profound; it's more a musical bridge, at least in the first half.  The second half finds Buchbinder slowing down slightly and bringin' the transcendence.  The first variation does not act as an extension of the arietta, being both faster and more searching.  The second variation sounds more vigorous yet, and unmistakably non-transcendent.  The boogie-woogie variation, while not syncopated in a way to suggest proto-jazz, is fast and forward moving, almost recklessly so.  The effect is better than that description implies.  In the fourth, Buchbinder starts off rough and edgy, comparatively speaking, but soon cools down a bit, recognizing that the struggle is now over.  The final destination is in sight.  The playing becomes more rarified.  The "little stars" sound gentle, caring, almost like a celestial lullaby.  The chains of trills, perhaps not the most even in recorded history, possess a certain cutting sound that nonetheless manages to sound ethereal.  Musical time seems to slow a bit as the movement progresses, and finally, after the final trills have ended, and the coda arrives, Elysian fields can be glimpsed.  Superb.  Unlike in the prior two cycles, the final trio ends up being one of the high points of the cycle, and maybe the high point.  That's always a good thing.

While Buchbinder was in his late 60s when performing these recitals, turning off the video and just listening gives no real indication of that.  Sure, there are a few slips, but these are real performances, so that's expected.  Never once is there a moment where Buchbinder does not firmly control the music, and his overall energy level and seriousness of purpose make this a very fine cycle.  I suppose one might be able to want a bit more nuance in a few places, and maybe slightly slower tempi here or there, or maybe some greater individuality, but then this cycle would not be what it is.  I'd have to do extensive A/Bs to make sure, and maybe one day I will, but this one has left a more positive overall impression on me than his first cycle for Teldec, which in turn I found preferable to his second, RCA cycle.  I certainly prefer this to the two Arrau cycles and Taub's cycle, which were the three listened to "immediately" before this one.  At a minimum, this is a high third tier ranking.  Hell, I'll just say it's second tier stuff.  It's proper Beethoven.

The 24/48 sound is superb, though dynamics don't match some other live cycles of this century.  The sound and the videography do not really match up - the sound is too "big" - so I largely listened with video off.  The videography I did see is of the multi-camera sort, with (occasionally distracting) face shots, hand shots, and various other angles.  Meh.

* It's still not clear whether Paul Badura-Skoda did in fact record a complete cycle for Westminster.  If he did, that's the only one I've not heard from the three-timers club.
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Offline Biffo

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Re: Rudolf Buchbinder Plays Beethoven, Take III
« Reply #1 on: October 21, 2017, 08:10:12 AM »
Thanks Todd for the lengthy and interesting review. I have just finished listening to the Kovacevich cycle  recently reissued by Warner so I am not yet ready for another one. I have never really considered Buchbinder in my purchases since I heard him years ago playing the 'Eroica' Variations. He seemed determined to hammer the piano into submission and I am sure it is the loudest playing I have heard. From your review he now seems to take a more considered approach; possibly one for the future, especially if it is issued as an audio set.