I met Viennese pianist Rudolf Buchbinder one recent evening in his dressing room at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, where he was performing his “Diabelli Project” program: variations on the short and somewhat banal waltz by contemporary composers (Jörg Widmann, Lera Auerbach, Max Richter, Toshio Hosokawa) and historical musicians (Liszt, Czerny, Schubert) in the first half; in the second, Beethoven’s momentous “Diabelli Variations.” Buchbinder, who turns 75 at the beginning of next month and wore a white button-down shirt monogrammed with his own initials, spoke in slow, thoughtful sentences, his pleasantly old-fashioned style tempered by his wish “to be every bit the rapscallion at 85 as I was at 15.” 

VAN: Austria is back in lockdown. How did you hold up during the first closures in March, 2020? 

Rudolf Buchbinder: At first we didn’t even realize what was happening. I had a concert with the “Diabelli Project,” then two days off, and after that I was supposed to go to Russia. My wife said that we should fly to St. Petersburg right away, but I wanted to go back to Vienna first, to sleep a night in my bed. It’s a good thing, too. In the meantime Russia shut down. 

But what bothers and embarrasses me about the whole situation is how culture has been treated by the politicians. Austria is in lockdown, but ski resorts are open. That’s the more powerful mafia. 

Presumably ski resorts are more important for the economy than orchestras.

Of course, it’s all about the money. That’s obvious. The politicians don’t care what happens to culture, which saddens me. 

During the first lockdowns, no one was playing at all…

I lost 120 concerts.

Did you miss performing?

No. You know, I’m a forward-looking person. I’m an optimist. I always say, “It can’t get any worse.” 

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When I spoke to musicians during the first phase of the pandemic, they usually said one of two things: That, without concerts, they didn’t know what to do with themselves; or that they were enjoying the break and wanted to travel less in the future. How did you feel? 

I don’t understand not knowing what to do with yourself. I have enough hobbies. I read, I try to paint. Many of my friends were and are painters. I’ve always had a lot of friends, but they’re all dying off now. 

[Due to the lockdowns] I didn’t practice more. You get lazy in a pandemic. All of a sudden, you’re taking a lot of siestas, and you get used to that.

In a 2011 interview, you said you practice a half an hour a day.

Sometimes an hour.

But not more?

Very rarely. I don’t understand how anyone can sit at the piano for six hours and practice. No one is capable of concentrating for six hours. It’s just finger training. It’s important to remember that our fingers are like Olympic athletes, but Olympic athletes stop at 30, and we want them to continue playing. 

Did you ever have phases in your life when you practiced for six hours?

Never, not even as a child. At age five, I was the youngest student ever at the Viennese Music Academy. You know who was the youngest before me? Fritz Kreisler. I beat his record.

Do you still hold the record?

Yes, there hasn’t been anyone younger than me since. 

Has a lot changed in the music world since your time as a student? 

Yes, there has been a great leveling-out. It’s the most dangerous thing in the entire world. This leveling-out has meant that there are no personalities anymore. Everywhere there’s a lack of personalities. 

Where are the conductors? All the orchestras complain that there are none. It’s either the old fossils—Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Mariss Jansons—and then who? Christian Thielemann, I guess. It’s a dispiriting development for music. But it’s the same in politics. Who’s going to follow Angela Merkel? There are no personalities anymore.

What do you think is the reason for this leveling-out? 

These days, people think, Don’t be noticed, blend in with the crowd. But that’s wrong. You need your own opinions—on fashion, on life, on everything. Never do what everyone else is doing. That’s the tendency these days. 

For the “Diabelli Project,” you commissioned 11 variations by contemporary composers. What were your criteria for choosing them? 

There were no criteria. Instead, I thought, Who are the important living composers? At my festival, in Grafenegg, Austria, we have a different composer-in-residence every year. There, it’s not about criteria, but about showing the audience the variations of how it is possible to compose in our time. 

Is there an aesthetic through-line?

No, none at all. I don’t like the term “through-line.” At my festival, as long as I’m artistic director, there will never be a theme. And if another festival has a theme I don’t play. 

The Lucerne Festival has a theme every year, for example.

That doesn’t count. But if a colleague is supposed to play in Grafenegg—Alfred Brendel came in my first year—and I tell him that the theme is this or that, and that’s why he should play particular pieces, he’ll laugh at me… if I’m lucky. 

Were there any composers you wanted to collaborate with on the “Diabelli Project” with whom it didn’t work out? 

There are 11 pieces, but there were supposed to be 12. Krzysztof Penderecki, a friend who was important to me, was supposed to write one. He was the anchor of the project. But he was already sick. I told him, “Krzysztof, it’s just a minute or two.” He said he’d do it. But he couldn’t write anymore, and then, sadly, he died. It’s terrible. 

Was there a variation that surprised you the most when you got it?

Jörg Widmann’s piece, which is an ideal final variation. 

I was so afraid, working on this project. It’s hard to play, but even harder to listen to—it’s not easy to digest. I was worried the audience would start coughing by the fifth variation. And complaining, that Austrian disease. But the reception has been unbelievable. 

"I was worried the audience would start coughing by the fifth variation. And complaining, that Austrian disease. But the reception has been unbelievable." @buchbinderpiano on his Diabelli Project in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

One of the composers you commissioned is Max Richter. Richter is a neoclassical composer, a genre especially beloved by your label, Deutsche Grammophon.

That’s his style and I accept it. I’m not too deep into this genre, but it’s one of the ways of composing today. Do you know why I’m a film buff? Because film music is a genre where the composer can write what he wants, irrespective of the trends. For me, Dimitri Tiomkin is one of the great film composers, his music is unbelievable. 

But contemporary music has a problem: People aren’t used to hearing it. They don’t know the music. There was a concert I’ll never forget, I was playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Claudio Abbado in Milan, and Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw.” The Milanese audience was like, [single clap]. And that was it. So what did Claudio do? He stayed onstage and played the piece again. Like a punishment. The second time, the audience went wild. Why? They knew the piece. 

So in concert music composers can’t write what they want?

Not really. You said “neoclassical”: Max Richter is an artist out of the norm and out of our time. But he stands behind his style, and you have to accept that. 

When you play contemporary music in the first half of the program, does that change your interpretation of the “Diabelli Variations” in the second half? 

No, it’s its own microcosmos. This work has been a part of my life since I was a child. I’ve recorded the “Diabelli Variations” three times. Once, a student of mine went to a concert by [pianist] Alexis Weissenberg in Paris, and went to his green room to say hi after. Alexis asked him, “Who are you studying with?” “With Buchbinder,” the student said. “Ahhh, Monsieur Diabelli.” [Laughs.] I can live with that. 

In interviews, you like to say you want your career to always be progressing higher and higher. Are there new pieces that you’d still like to perform? 

There’s a hole in my repertoire, though my repertoire is massive. On the one hand, I’d like to reduce my repertoire, not expand it. On the other, I’d be happy playing a different program every night, and I need the variety. But there’s a composer whose piano concertos I’ve never played: Bartók.

You could reduce your repertoire and still add Bartók to it.

Cut ten pieces and add a Bartók concerto? Yeah, that would be nice. Maybe someday. 

But if you enjoy playing a varied repertoire, why try to reduce it in the first place? 

Because it covers too much ground. But it’s not like it works, anyway. I’d decided I never wanted to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto again. Then Thielemann said, “We have to do Grieg.” I said, “Christian, please, let’s do Schumann instead.” “No, I can only do Grieg with you, you have to.” So I sat down and studied the concerto as if I’d never played it before. Suddenly, it was a completely different piece. Now I love it. 

Are there other professional goals you haven’t achieved yet? 

My career has been a constant, continuous crescendo. I like to compare my career to Claudio Arrau’s: He reached the peak at the end of his life. Nothing could be better than that. Something that bothers me a bit: When I’m not around anymore, I’ll never know how much further the crescendo could have gone. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.