Austrian piano virtuoso enjoys life on-off stage

July 12, 2012 - 8:37 AM
Austria Buchbinder Unbound

In this photo taken Monday, July 2, 2012, Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder holds a rubber piano as he speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria. To watch and hear Rudolf Buchbinder in concert is to experience the totality of perfect phrasing, magnificent technique and an unparalleled love of his instrument that has placed him among the top tier of the world's pianists. He is a passionate collector of objects as diverse as dog's squeaky rubber piano toy, hundreds of classic movie DVDs and dozens of first editions of rare classical scores. He is a masterful raconteur moving freely within minutes from music to soccer, to painting, the pleasures of Vienna, to yet something else that is completely unrelated. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

VIENNA (AP) — To watch and hear Rudolf Buchbinder in concert is to experience the totality of perfect phrasing, magnificent technique and an unparalleled love of his instrument that has placed him among the top tier of the world's pianists.

But the entertainment does not stop when he moves off stage.

Buchbinder unbound from the corset of the concert hall is a passionate collector of objects as diverse as a dog's squeaky rubber piano toy, hundreds of classic movie DVDs and dozens of first editions of rare classical scores. He is a masterful raconteur moving freely within minutes from music to soccer, to painting, the pleasures of Vienna — to yet something else that is completely unrelated.

Maestro Buchbinder, the virtuoso, is also just Rudi, a regular guy who refuses to accept the Austrian title of honorary professor and who leaves his medals hanging in the closet when attending balls and receptions positively jangling with the metal decorating the tuxedoes of other male guests. He chortles as he recalls scaring his now grown son a few years ago by climbing out of one window of his house then walking along the eaves to another window, where the boy was sitting — and then knocking.

At 65, "I am still just a little rascal," he says, blue eyes twinkling. "I have a problem with the word 'maturity.'"

Conductor Zubin Mehta calls him "a great artist who has remained a normal human being ... a rare combination," and Buchbinder off-stage reveals that human side of his persona — something few concert-goers get to see. Within the book-lined and wood-paneled walls of his Vienna villa, the man described by The New York Times as playing "with haunting restraint and mystery" shows himself at his impish best as he relaxes off stage to draw energy for his next musical endeavor.

"I also have a problem with going on holiday," he says, with a hand sweep that encompasses his grand piano, part of his library and a coffee table laden with piping hot apple strudel made by his wife, Agi. "I am totally stressed out when on holidays — I have everything I need here."

That statement extends beyond the couple's home in the city's leafy 19th District overlooking some of suburban Vienna's most beautiful vistas to Vienna itself.

Buchbinder is a regular with the world's premier orchestras. Gigs from July through September include concerts in Israel, Germany, Brazil, the United States, France, China, Monte Carlo and Italy. He logs thousands of air miles some months, knows the insides of scores of hotels worldwide and has more than 100 recordings to his credit, including the complete Beethoven sonatas on disc and the five Beethoven concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic on DVD, both released this year. He also runs the Grafenegg Music Festival outside Vienna.

In his heart though, he has remained what he's been since childhood — a "Wiener Bua" or "Vienna Boy" who feels most in touch with his inner self when walking streets bestrode by some of the world's greatest composers.

"I know the whole world but I have to be thankful to dear God that I am able to live in Vienna," Buchbinder says. "I know of no other city in the world where you breathe in music with the air the way you do in Vienna. Why else did Brahms, Beethoven or Mozart come here?"

Buchbinder recalls an encounter with a city taxi driver a few years ago who facilely discussed who was singing what role at the Vienna State Opera and expertly commented on the singers strengths' and weaknesses. "If there is a scandal at the State Opera, that's what makes the headlines here and not some sort of European economic crisis."

Born in the Austrian capital, Buchbinder was admitted to the city's prestigious Vienna Music Academy at age 5, a still-standing record for the youngest entry to that institution. He made his debut five years later at Vienna's ornate Musikverein with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1. It was the start of his love affair with the German composer whose musical life — like Buchbinder's — was inexorably linked to Vienna.

"He haunted me 24 hours, day and night, he often drove me half-crazy!" writes Buchbinder in his autobiography of his 1982 bravura feat — playing all 38 of the German maestro's piano sonatas in seven consecutive weekly concerts. "I even dreamt of Beethoven back then!"

Buchbinder raves about Brahms, Mozart, Schubert and Gershwin, but Beethoven still rules 30 years later. Bounding from his half-finished strudel to the shiny black grand, he spreads his broad, powerful right hand to strike seven octaves in rapid succession in a phrase from Beethoven's 1st Piano Concerto.

"If I ever have to start playing this part with two hands like all my colleagues, that's time to stop playing this concerto," he explains. As a matter of fact, he says, he is prepared to stop playing altogether once he feels his skills waning, a point he hopes will come "only shortly before my death."

All of his performances in recent years have been live, and Buchbinder says he happily takes the risk of a live recording that may be less than 100-percent perfect over putting together something in a studio that lacks "spontaneity, emotion and nervousness."

"You can always repeat a phrase 10 times in a studio," he says. "That's not me."

It's that drive for freshness, says Buchbinder, that prevents him from ever listening to himself.

"Look," he says, pointing to a shelf lined with dozens of his CDs and still encased in cellophane. "They're all in their original packing.

"A painter paints a picture and he hangs it on the wall and it's for eternity," he explains. "But I've played what I've recorded there so many times since and it sounds different from one day to the next — so I get nervous if I listen to myself or if someone shows me a DVD of me playing.

"I have to leave the room."