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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

The Five Piano Concertos

  • Concerto for Piano #1 in C Major, Op. 15
  • Concerto for Piano #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19
  • Concerto for Piano #3 in C minor, Op. 37
  • Concerto for Piano #4 in G Major, Op. 58
  • Concerto for Piano #5 in E Flat Major "Emperor", Op. 73
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Buchbinder
Sony Classical 88883-74521-2
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This set was taped live a few years back for DVD release and warmly received. Now Sony Classical gives us an audio-only option, and one which should win the set more friends. Buchbinder is a pianist who hasn't really gotten much attention over the years – and certainly not outside the industry – but nonetheless commands a great deal of respect for his work in the music of the great Classical-era composers. He's also a pianist who prefers to conduct as well as play. He clearly knows what he's doing there, too.

The Vienna Philharmonic plays superbly throughout. I read reviews of both the CDs and DVDs that complained about the ensemble, and I have to disagree. In this music especially, I've never really argued that a conductor was essential. Pianists as diverse as Ashkenazy and Barenboim have recorded this music without one, and in fact, the latter has done it twice. What you perhaps lose in incisiveness, you gain back in ensemble balance. So it is here. The Vienna forces don't sound slimmed down as much as they sound leaner and more agile. The sound on these discs reinforces that impression; nothing is overly heavy, even in those concertos with a more traditional touch. It's a simply beautiful sound throughout. Credit the pianist for paying such careful attention to detail.

As for Buchbinder himself, he is in excellent form. He may not be the flashiest pianist around, but he is an intelligent and extraordinarily talented player who knows exactly what his gifts are. He doesn't try to outrace anyone, or follow any of the increasingly silly musical "trends". Rather, he understands the strengths that he and his players have and acts accordingly. This leads to a wonderfully old-fashioned disc of the first two concertos, a touch stately in places but also never dull. The cadenza choice for the 1st Concerto is unusual, but wholly welcome. The 3rd and 4th get very good readings too; I've always loved the clarity that a pianist-led 4th Concerto can bring, and Buchbinder delivers the goods. Particularly notable is an exceptionally tense middle movement that turns slushy in less capable hands.

A beautifully majestic Emperor finishes the set. Again, the lack of heaviness is an asset, but that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of power. There's plenty of it here, and the Vienna forces play stunningly. Buchbinder is also making some gorgeous sounds here, and there are moments in the first movement alone that are worth the price of the set. A lovely Adagio follows. Some of my fellow critics have pointed out that there are more otherworldly versions out there, and this is true. But this is still spine-chilling in its own right, as much for the velvety sounds of those Vienna strings and winds as for the utterly natural way that the pianist shapes the movement. The Rondo is far more playful and less clunky than some; it's certainly more witty that Fleisher and Szell, also on Sony. Buchbinder and the Philharmonic simply sound like they're having a good time, something that isn't Vienna's usual calling card. While I can't say this is a set to define a collection with, I can say it's a set worth investing your time in. You'll find much to enjoy.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman