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Buchbinder the Mighty Sculptor

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/04/2024 -  & January 5*, 6, 2024
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Opus 98

Rudolf Buchbinder (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap von Zweden (Music Director, Conductor)

R. Buchbinder

Diverse nations have diverse fashions and differ in habits, diet, speech and song. In music, the Germans (I am ashamed to utter) do howl like wolves.
John Dowland

There are only two kinds of music. German music and bad music.
H. L. Mencken

It would be misleading to say that the New York Philharmonic was playing an “all German” program this week. The conductor is Dutch, the piano soloist is Austrian, two of the composers deserted their birthplace for Vienna. The third composer built his own city, his own theater, his own philosophy of music and drama.

And he simply told Europe, with the greatest arrogance of any artist, “I’m not gonna go to Vienna or anywhere else. If you want to hear my music, then you’ll come to me. I won’t go to you.”

That was of course Richard Wagner, who highlighted the trio of familiar works played by the Philharmonic. The music was probably the most familiar Wagner opening, Prelude, for Die Meistersinger, where Wagner created the most unlikely comedy in opera. The music is grand enough, the finale (with music of this Prelude) is epic. And while the subjects are questionable–plagiarism, xenophobia, class conscience and a hearty helping of anti‑Semitism–nobody cannot help but be moved by the astonishing lyrical music.

Jaap van Zweden presented the familiar martial strains with great energy, propelling the Phil’s brass section into high gear. After that, Mr. van Zweden took the work in his stride, allowing the orchestra to give an almost mellow touch. The most memorable moment took a half‑second (with added resonance). Eight measures before the end, the Phil’s cymbalist rose up with the mightiest clash I’ve ever heard. A marvelous ending.

The star of Friday afternoon was the celebrated Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. The word “eminent” usually signifies old-fashioned, which Mr. Buchbinder, after 65 years on the concert stage definitely is not. True, her lacks the acrobatic bravura, the idiosyncratic and self-absorbed auteur playing of younger pianists.

(What was that old joke? “Pianist Mr. Anonymous played Beethoven last night. Beethoven lost.”)

But what he does possess, as perhaps the most prominent Beethoven performer on the stage, is judgment, sobriety, and the granitic touch of a great sculptor. From those first mysterious chords to the cadenzas where the pianist sailed through the most challenging cascades to the final sudden changes of voice and volume, this was a performance which stood out. Not for Mr. Buchbinder’s distinction of tone and style, not for the phrasing, but because the acerbic caustic Beethoven would have said, “Yes, that’s the way it should be played.”

Ending the program of 19th Century hits was Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, played with efficiency competence, yet lacking either revelation or remembrance. More than the first two works, an American orchestra–no matter how excellent, with the most delicious solos for flute and clarinet–can’t duplicate the ambiance and the spirit of a European orchestra.

This is not to denigrate Mr. van Zweden’s leadership. He played a touching opening (who else but Brahms could take a mere minor third and turn it into such a beautiful movement?), a sizzling Allegro giocoso, and came through the Passacaglia with some languor in the middle but a blistering-enough finale.

Harry Rolnick



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