Rudolf Buchbinder at Symphony Center review- A magical program of Beethoven’s piano sonatas

Pianist Rudolf Buchbinder accepting ovations at Symphony Center, Chicago; photo by Todd Rosenberg

“Beethoven was the most romantic of composers,” said renowned Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, whose renditions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s works are considered to be the epitome of classical interpretation. He has performed the composer’s entire 32 piano sonatas dozens of times, and recorded the complete group several times. 

This year, as the music world celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday during the 2019- 2020 concert season, Buchbinder, who has been the artistic director of the Grafenegg Festival since it was formed in 2007, will be engaged around the globe playing cycles of Beethoven’s works. 

On November 6, 2019 he performed a well balanced program of 4 sonatas- 2 early examples, and 2 later compositions, as well as a single movement from a 5th sonata in encore- at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago as part of the  89th season of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series.

Rudolf Buchbinder
Photo: Marco Borggreve

– Beethoven Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, 1795

The opening notes seemed to float and weave their way to and fro throughout the themes of the first movement, ascending and descending into syncopated action. The second movement slow Adagio was lyrical and  soft.
Then, following a short danceing Minuet, Buchbinder sent the fourth movement explosively out into Orchestra Hall with seemingly endless virtuoso left-hand triple arpeggios. The Prestissimo is constructed as a teeming turbulence interrupted by brief bursts of clarity that sum up this work as a synthesis of lightness and darkness.

– Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3, 1795

The first movement Allegro comprises an almost humorous opening theme accented by additional melodic motifs. While the overall sense is atmospherically innocent, Buchbinder captured a sense of drama, an assertive energetic drive made manifest by brilliantly colorful ascending chords. 

 The second main theme is lovely,  possessing a virtuoso grace, elegance and spontaneity; this flows into a bold, daring, and quite mischievous passage. In development, this fine artist moved deftly through a number of modes before ending with a staggering coda that brings us to the Adagio, a lovely, albeit somewhat ponderous theme. Restated twice with more vibrancy, it returns in the upper register before the short, rhythmic Scherzo is finessed in wonderfully lively bursts of melody.

The final Allegro, a festive rondo, ascends quickly then reverses with wit; this clever pattern is transformed and contrasted with an imaginative, dreamy theme, changeable and vivid, in a fiery outpouring of joyful chromatics, concluding with a firmly handled recap and a long, mesmerizing coda.

– Beethoven Sonata No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2, 1797

This deceptively simple sonata is introduced with an Allegro that’s a study in perfectly formed triplets, followed by a beautiful second movement in the tempo of a Minuet, a winsome and cultivated, exquisitely formed dance.

– Beethoven Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata), 1804-06

 In performing this piece, Buchbinder gave us a glimpse of the passion central to the heart of the towering composer, the Sonata that biography tells us was Beethoven’s own “personal best.”  Filled with rousing chords, startling pauses, and fierce melodic outbursts, the work is a varied tonal masterpiece. 

The supremely self-assured artist confidently worked through the contradictory passages, the eloquent silences, almost furious harmonics to the raging finale; the Sonata was stunning in it’s portrayal of an outsize personality.

– In encore:  Beethoven Third movement from Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor (Pathétique) Op.13, 1799

This sonata, which legend would have us believe was nicknamed by the composer himself to convey romantic melancholy, consists of deeply emotive music. The third movement Rondo, approximately 4 ½ minutes in length, is formed in finale as a connecting point for all the 3 movements. Standing alone, it was presented with almost insouciant ease by the justifiably confident Guest Pianist. 

SCP Piano
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

For information and tickets to all the great programming of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.cso.org

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