EIF 2015 review: Buchbinder 3

First published in the Guardian on 11 August, 2015

There is never much downtime with Rudolf Buchbinder. The indefatigable 68-year-old Viennese pianist plays Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas across nine concerts at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival: it’s a marathon he has run nearly 50 times before, and by the looks of things he could do it 50 times again without breaking sweat. At his third concert he left barely a breath between sonatas, let alone movements, and hurtled through most of it at fearless speeds. The brio was impressive and very bracing, but I often found myself longing for all of the wondrous detail we were clattering past along the way.

These festival programmes are mixed and matched in non-chronological order, each one lasting an hour and a bit. Here the spry early Sonata in F Major Op 10 no 2 and the gentle E minor Op 90 were warm-ups to the towering Hammerklavier Op 106. Buchbinder doesn’t bother to coax a beautiful sound from the keyboard; instead his touch is direct and loud, often bottom-heavy and metallic. It can be refreshing in the early sonatas — his F-Major was meaty and exciting, with a rare gravitas in flighty passages — and by contrast I loved the sudden forlornness he revealed at the end of the E-minor’s opening movement. With so much coming at us full-throttle, moments of calm really struck home.

On paper the fierce attack should have suited the mighty Hammerklavier, biggest-boned of all Beethoven sonatas, but the relentless thrust and lack of clarity in inner lines ended up dampening the impact. Occasional nuances were ear-catching — the mysterious evaporation of the second movement, or the odd tender resolution of a cadence in the third — but I craved more of these. Draw the contours of Buchbinder’s phrasing and the results would look remarkably unyielding.