Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder has just released a box set of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, which, he says "inhabit a musical world of their own."
He says that's because, through each stage of Beethoven's career, he always found a musical outlet in the piano sonata. From the first, early sonatas of Opus 2 to Opus 111 written just a few years before his death, the piano sonatas accompanied Beethoven throughout his life, and serve as a kind of barometer of his development as a composer.
Those sonatas have accompanied Buchbinder through his whole life, as well. He first recorded the complete cycle more than thirty years ago. It's been years now since he's set foot in a studio, much preferring the tightrope — and energy — of live performance for his recordings.
RUDOLF BUCHBINDER: You know, when I listen to studio recordings, there are three things I am missing: spontaneity, emotion, and nervosity. When you go into studio, it's easygoing. Because you can play it once, twice, five times or ten times, and once it will be okay. And this is absolutely wrong.
There is no spontaneity, no emotion in the studio. How can it come? You need the public, you need the atmosphere.
His newest recording of the Beethoven sonatas features live performances from his recital series. He's played the complete Beethoven cycle — seven nights' worth — in nearly 50 different cities.
He says he's happy to risk one or two wrong notes (and the occasional audience cough) for those electrified performances. He knows the music so intimately that the chance for those wrong notes is pretty slim. Besides, he says, he's embraced a broader idea of what constitutes technical perfection. It has something to do with "breathing with the music."
RB: This breathing you learn only after many many years, when you study and learn music. You have to breathe in the pause, not go on like a military rhythm. The pause is at least as important as a phrase, as a melody.
I asked Rudolf Buchbinder if he was thinking about the events and emotions of Beethoven's life when he sat down to play.
RB: Not during my performance, but I know it before, when I studied these pieces. You have to know so many things about Beethoven, about his time, what happened in his history, what happened in politics, and in society, very important. These are all things which are in your brain, which are in your body, but you don't think about when you are performing, but it is important to know it.
For example, Beethoven's Sonata No. 26, written at a moment of farewell, and which we know by the French name, Les Adieux.
RB: The title, Les Adieux, is absolutely wrong. Beethoven was absolutely upset with the editor. It was the fashion to write everything in French. But "Adieux" means something different from "Lebewohl." Beethoven wrote "Lebewohl" over the first three chords. This was a way to say goodbye to [Archduke Rudolf]. This is one of his closest friends. It's a fantastic friendship between two men. And Beethoven said, "'Adieu' I can say to a group of people, to some strangers. But 'Lebewohl,' goodbye — this is a special kind of thing; I only can say very intimate to a person which I love and I adore."
Then there's Beethoven's Sonata No. 27. Beethoven himself described the dialogue between the high and low voices as "the conversation with the Beloved." It was a conversation that, ultimately, did not go well...
RB: You feel that Beethoven was always looking and dreaming of love and warmth, but what he never got. This is such a deep feeling, and you get tears in your eyes when you play. It's absolutely heartbreaking.
Rudolf Buchbinder, breathing Beethoven through his tears in this gorgeous, emotional — but not sentimental — box set called The Sonata Legacy.