This survey is meant to list all complete sets of
Beethoven's Piano Sonatas and their availability in different
markets, not to review them.
For those of you wanting to let me know about
series that I have apparently missed, please wait for my last
Alfred Brendel I (stereo)
1961 - 1964 - Vox-Turnabout
When Brendel set our to record Beethoven for Vox-Turnabout,
it wasn't just the complete sonatas but indeed the (more
or less) complete solo works for piano that he put on record.
Brendel wasn't always proud of his early recordings and
he went on to record the sonatas twice more for Philips...
though what I've heard of this set (some of which is also
in the Brilliant
Beethoven box) holds up quite nicely, actually.
Wilhelm Kempff II (stereo)
1964/65 - Deutsche Grammophon
Wilhelm Kempff "II" is the classic among
Beethoven sonata cycles. Why exactly that is the case
difficult to say, because Kempff convinces through subtlety
and superb accounts of all the lesser known and 'little'
sonatas. In the bigguns, he is rarely outright impressive.
Kempff is not as perpetually understated as Backhaus and
he can even be quite playful. Solid, in the best, most
empathetically positive sense of the word.
To ears reared on Pollini, Arrau's Beethoven can take some
time getting used to, in good part due to the deliberate
tempos he often chooses. But it's incredibly musical stuff
worth all that effort, even if some of the last five sonatas
don't appear as grand as elsewhere. To many of its owners,
the original Philips pressings set a new standard in piano
Wilhelm Backhaus II (stereo*)
1958* - 1969 - Decca
To paraphrase myself (referring to a
Beethoven Concerto DVD): There is purpose behind every
note; purpose at the service of the music, not Backhaus'
own ego. No unnecessary tone or emotion comes from this
outwardly impassive man; there is no smudging to 'improve'
individual instances. Like less-than-refined brush strokes
in great painting, an almost barren tone with Backhaus emerges
as an essential part of the unadulterated whole.
Backhaus is “nobility but not 'power', seriousness
without pompousness, devotion with no show of 'piety'”
and although it may be 'too little' for some, it amounts
to 'everything' I ask of Beethoven.
Friedrich Gulda's second set came at the very height of
his technical facility and blew the (perceived) cobwebs
off the 'heroic' Beethoven sonatas. It is a marvel of consistency
and wondrous for the speed with which Gulda breezes through
these works with a sense of joy and occasionally irreverence.
Although I have other favorites for about every individual
sonata (save the Moonlight) this is my go-to and
reference set (even as Backhaus II remains my favorite).
More intense than Kempff, never lumbering like Kuerti, nor
professorially sincere like Schiff, consistently more engaging
in the late Sonatas than Ashkenazy, more flexible than Backhaus,
not as patricianly flowing as Arrau, Gulda somehow manages
to combine a highly personal reading with a compromising
stance that appeals to the many rather than offending most.
It could be argued that the "fresh" approach isn't
necessary anymore and that Gulda has a tendency toward the
superficial, but to my ears that does not detract from this
Daniel Barenboim is one of the few pianists who have recorded
the complete cycle trice (Twice on CD, once on DVD).
Quantity doesn't necessarily make up for quantity, though,
and I have yet to truly appreciate either of his two first
Paul Badura-Skoda's "Viennese" Beethoven survey
on a Boesendorfer Grand. Overshadowed at the time by the
more famous to have come just before him and those who would
come just after him, but a connoisseur's Echt-Austrian
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