There are Beethoven fanatics, then there is Rudolf Buchbinder. The legendary pianist, who celebrated his 71st birthday on Friday (December 1), has dedicated his life to exploring every minute detail of the German composer's musical career, playing the complete cycle of his 32 piano sonatas more than 50 times. He lives in Vienna – where else – the city that became one of the major centres of world music thanks to the efforts of Beethoven (and Mozart and Haydn before him) in the 19th century. Oh, and he obsessively collects Beethoven manuscripts. The man and his music are in Buchbinder's blood.
So Buchbinder is not going to let the small matter of an urgent fire alarm blaring in his Boston hotel room stop him from telling me why he is looking forward to taking on the complete cycle of Beethoven's five piano concertos during two spectacular nights in Abu Dhabi next week.
“The thing about Beethoven’s piano concerti,” he says, as the public address system urges people to head towards the nearest emergency exits, “is that they all have such completely different character. You cannot compare one with the other. Ah, that funny alarm. So stupid. Anyway, where were we?”
Such eccentricity is key to understanding Buchbinder's charms as he readies himself to play two Abu Dhabi Classics concerts with the Staatskapelle Dresden. This is a man who has admitted to crying most times he plays Beethoven's music – so expect plenty of tears at Emirates Palace.
Yet none of this is scripted. One night, Buchbinder might cry at a certain phrasing in one piece of music; the next it could be something completely different. So while Piano Concerto No 5, for example, is often cited as being the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever written – not for nothing is it known as The Emperor Concerto – Buchbinder always finds something new and fresh to explore in it and every piece of Beethoven's music.
“I have 39 different editions and I collect first editions of his music, too,” he says. “And all the time, I discover new things, new mistakes even. You can read between the lines and find different interpretations. You know, a sonata I play today will be completely different to how I play it tomorrow. It’s never the same.”
Indeed, Buchbinder says that there is no such thing as an authentic interpretation – he says you can hear the "fantastic" fifth concerto 10 times and hear a different version each time – and that's not in any way a problem. "This is what makes this music stay alive forever," he says.
Which is a refreshing attitude to a style of music that often labours under the misapprehension that there is a received, set way of playing it. Buchbinder has been accused of hurtling through Beethoven's piano concertos at breakneck speed rather than letting the music, and the details, breathe. But this approach also offers an effervescence and vitality to his concerts. Indeed, Buchbinder thinks it matches the pioneering spirit of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century.
"When you listen to all five piano concerti like this, it's a chance to journey back into the period of Viennese history in which Beethoven was living," he says. "He and Mozart were the pop artists of their time and there was a real musical freedom then – it really is a challenge and experience to both listen to and play these concerti in such a short space of time.
"But it is fascinating how Beethoven was constantly changing his approach and style, which you can see in these concerti. Both he and Mozart couldn't have existed without Haydn, but Beethoven was the revolutionary. He used to get very upset that people would only play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata – he thought he had written much better pieces."
Some of that emotion is clearly reflected in the music. Buchbinder is certain that Beethoven is the most romantic of all the classical composers, but he could also be angry. "You can feel the mood Beethoven is in for each sonata – and actually I think you only really discover that when you're in a concert hall and you hear it intimately for yourself," he says.
Which is why Buchbinder continually returns to huge cycles of Beethoven's music in concert halls across the world – you suspect he is constantly wowed by the unique atmosphere in the room on a specific night. Buchbinder's releases are never performed in the studio; they're always recorded live.
“That way you can truly capture the emotion, spontaneity and even the nerves in the room,” he explains. “It’s important to be nervous, because it helps you to find the dynamism in the music.”
Perhaps some of those nerves come from the fact Buchbinder has taken to presenting some of these concertos as a conductor-pianist – some of Beethoven's work lends itself to a chamber-like presentation, but it is not generally performed without a specific conductor. It is another innovation from the Austrian, and it does add another level of difficulty – and interest.
“Well, I hope there will be a good Steinway piano at the Emirates Palace,” he jokes. “I’m sure there will be. Actually, presenting the concerti in this way means all the musicians have a very big responsibility, so it helps that the Staatskapelle Dresden are one of the best orchestras in the world. It’s a great pleasure to work with them. This project is something special, so I’m really looking forward to coming to the UAE.”
It should, then, be a fascinating set of concerts for both the classical experts and the uninitiated – and that’s the beauty of Buchbinder’s approach. The nuances are there if you want them, but the concertos work as approachable “greatest hits”, too.
“You know, I don’t think people necessarily need to sit down and understand and interpret every small detail of the music,” he says. “The most important thing is that they love the music – and that’s the same all over the world. The people who come to listen to me playing Beethoven in Vienna, New York, Paris or Abu Dhabi are actually the same – they go to the concert because they love it.”
So which of the five concertos does he most love?
"Well, that's a dangerous question," he laughs. "If I tell you what my favourite one is, then I wouldn't be able to play the other four. So I have to love all five equally, even though No 4 is one of the deepest, most romantic, sensitive, touching concerti.
“And I do love them all, actually. Beethoven was absolutely a romantic composer – though I believe every human is romantic. That’s why he was so special, because he could capture that feeling – and probably why he has accompanied me throughout my whole life.”
Staatskapelle Dresden with Rudolf Buchbinder is on Tuesday (Concertos 1 and 5) and Wednesday (Concertos 2, 3 and 4) at 8pm, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit www.abudhabimusic.ae