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Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Six Piano Variations

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano); Berlin Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann (DG)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15; Six Piano Variations in F major, Op. 34
Rudolf Buchbinder (piano); Berlin Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann
DG 483 7733   49:12 mins


The great Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder always gives full measure: a complete cycle of Haydn sonatas, two cycles of Beethoven’s. His live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, which he also directed from the keyboard in the space of a few pressured hours, now has benchmark status. That was for Sony; no wonder Deutsche Grammophon wanted to snap him up. They have now followed up his intriguing Diabelli Project by taking him back to a Beethoven concerto for a live performance with his old friend Christian Thielemann at the helm. How wise was this?

To get into the mood, I listened to the opening movement of his Sony recording of this first concerto. Then I listened to the Thielemann version: equally fine, it seemed. Then I listened to the two recordings in parallel – three minutes of one, then three of the other, and sometimes bar for bar. Buchbinder gave essentially the same performance in both cases, but gradually a difference appears.

There are moments when Thielemann scores higher – better pianissimos, smarter whipping of the orchestra in the closing ‘Rondo’ – but overall I prefer the Sony version. In the latter, Buchbinder’s account of the development of the first movement is more wondering and eloquent, and piano and orchestra are brought more pleasingly into conversation. Buchbinder seems more incisively alive when in total charge – maybe because of the increased adrenalin? The clincher is the sound, which on the Sony recording is cleaner.

As a final bonne bouche, the Variations in F major are a delight. There is a vernal freshness in Buchbinder’s touch, and the work becomes a miniature drama. After the theme’s foursquare simplicity the variations are vividly characterised: the virile force of the first gives way to the muscular legato of the second; the funeral-march number is like a passing cloud, dissipated by the explosion of trills and arpeggios of the sunlit finale.

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Michael Church