Monday, March 3, 2014


Severance Hall
March 6, 7 & 8

Buchbinder studies scores like they're suspense thrillers.

Even among top-tier classical pianists, Rudolf Buchbinder cuts a distinctive figure.

Long ago the Viennese virtuoso established himself as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Beethoven, not only because of his superb playing skills, but because he is a scholar who has devoted considerable time to collecting and studying original manuscripts and autograph scores. His studies inform his performances, which are noted for their masterful technique, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit.

At the age of 67, Buchbinder is in demand all over the world. In January he performed in Tokyo, Berlin and London, and later this month will be traveling to Istanbul, Hamburg and Milan. In between he is making a stop at Severance Hall to play with the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time in 15 years. Cleveland audiences will not be hearing Beethoven, however. Buchbinder will be playing one of his favorite works, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Last week the pianist took time out of his busy schedule to talk about the piece from his home in Vienna.

Whose idea was it to have you play Rachmaninoff?

Franz Welser-Möst asked me to play it with him, and I’m delighted. In my opinion, there are three great variation compositions: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, which is a great, great piece.

How long have you been playing it?

I started on this piece at the age of 14. My teacher said to me, Rudy, my little boy, now you will learn a very great and big, fantastic concerto. I was very excited, of course. But then he said, it’s Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations. And I was so upset, because I didn’t know the piece at all! I thought he would give me like a Beethoven or Brahms concerto. But the Rachmaninoff was one of his favorite pieces, and since that time, it’s also one of mine.

Rachmaninoff had unusually large hands. Is that what makes his pieces so hard to play?

No, I don’t think you need large hands for piano playing, not even Rachmaninoff. With someone like Brahms, he had his own chords and way of playing, and you have to get used to it. But what Rachmaninoff wrote is very pianistic, in the same way that Franz Liszt composed for pianists. Rachmaninoff also wrote for us.

How do you approach the Paganini Rhapsody?

I try to play it as a big, classic concerto. I don’t care what it’s called, it’s a concerto. And by the way, very difficult to play, lousy difficult.

How long did it take before you felt you had mastered the piece?

Through my whole life, I’ve always tried to study pieces slowly. They should grow in my body, and into my body. Then I can live the piece.

So when you take on a work like the Paganini Rhapsody, it’s a lifelong project?

Absolutely. And every time I return to it, I discover something new.

Is that partly because of the research you do, studying original scores and manuscripts?

Yes, it’s fascinating. I read them like a crime novel, like Agatha Christie. Also very important for me, and I tell all my students this: Before you play a composition by someone, read a book about this person. Learn the history of his time, and become familiar with his life, his family, his loves, his women – everything. Learn a sense of place. Then you can start to study the piece.

Have you performed with Maestro Welser-Möst very much?

Several times, but never this piece. It will be a premiere, the first time we are doing it. So we’ll see how we fight together.

You two share a strong Viennese musical background.

I always say, there’s no place for any compromise in music. Either you fit together, or you shouldn’t play together. If you don’t see the music the same way, it makes no sense. With this concerto, I am looking forward very much to working with him. I’m sure it will be like huge chamber music when we play together.

What are your impressions of the Cleveland Orchestra?

I know it very well, and to me, it’s one of the greatest orchestras. What I love about this orchestra is its perfection, and at the same time the musicianship. You don’t find both in high quality very often.

Do you find much difference between playing with orchestras in Europe and America?

Not any more. The music is so international today – which in some ways is a bit sad, because orchestras are losing more and more of their own personal sound. Of course, Europe has some fantastic orchestras. But as I say, in its combination of perfection and musicianship, Cleveland is for me one of the greatest orchestras.

What do you hope that audiences in Cleveland will get from your performance?

I want to bring my personal interpretation of the Paganini Rhapsody. I hope that people in Cleveland will say, I never heard this piece like that! I want it to be really fresh.

For more on Rudolf Buchbinder:

Photo by Basta

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