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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief
Recordings of Beethoven Piano Cycles
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 instalment.
|Artur Schnabel (mono)
1932 - 1935 - HMV
Artur Schnabel, the first pianist to record all 32 Beethoven
sonatas, is still held in the highest esteem by many piano
aficionados and his recordings much sought after. You will
know if or when you want Schnabel's complete set - which,
to some, is key to understanding Schnabel and even Beethoven.
It is not recommended for those who are just beginning to
explore these works in depth as neither the recording quality
nor the technical accuracy is up to modern standards.
The sound is hampered either by high levels of noise or,
when those were carelessly removed, a flat, thin, and tinny
sound. Pearl leaves in the most noise but also the
most piano sound. Your ears do the filtering which, for
small listening sessions, yields the best results. Dante
(oop) does the opposite, but at least they do it well. EMI,
too, overfilters. Naxos offers a good compromise
and is recommended ahead of EMI. I don't know the Regis
re-mastering. Various other labels have received scathing
reviews for their re-mastering efforts and are probably
|Wilhelm Backhaus I (mono)
1950 - 1954 - Decca
This first Beethoven cycle (mono) of Wilhelm Backhaus has
long been a classic, and as is typical for mono cycles that
are out of print, it is often regarded as superior to his
later stereo cycle. Whether this is actually true or not
I cannot tell, as I have yet to track a copy down. Last
seen in an Italian edition, not even HMV-Japan has been
able to furnish me a copy. If or when I know of a new availability,
I'll be happy to share it here, though.
Not currently available apart from (illegal) torrent downloads.
|Yves Nat (mono)
1953 - 1955 - EMI
There were always great "German" Beethoven-cycles
around so that a listener outside of France never really
had to seriously consider a French sonata cycle. And while
the French could not avoid the marvel that is Gieseking's
Debussy, no French pianist ever championed Beethoven with
such compelling excellence that anyone outside of France
was forced to take note. None of this is to say that Yves
Nat's cycle was not a great accomplishment (though in some
way, every such cycle is), or that it isn't rewarding to
seek this one out. Nat's very casual playing (a musical
stroll, no climbing of looming mountains - most lovely in
the op.14 sonatas) does have its attractions and followers.
In an interview with Colin Clarke (Fanfare
Magazine) Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a student-of-a-student
of Nat, extols the virtues of Nat's Beethoven, and Clarke
agrees. De gustibus...
|Wilhelm Kempff I (mono)
1951 - 1956 - Deutsche Grammophon
Another of these early, great cycles. Mono again, a little
difficult or at least expensive to get, and therefore much
hailed? Re-listening to these recordings, it turns out that
its merits--stand along, but also comparatively--are really
strong, indeed. Especially the early sonatas and lesser
known sonatas Kempff comes across as having great fun with
his footloose LvB. The mono sound is easily good enough
to appeal even to those who don't like historic recordings.
|Friedrich Gulda I (mono/stereo)
1954 - 1958 - Decca
Gulda's first cycle would probably be extolled as "even
better" than his
much and highly regarded second one if only it were
out of print. But it isn't and while it is unarguably a
very interesting set that Decca has brought back to life,
there are spots of less fortunate sound quality and all
in all it doesn't quite sound as liberated as his second
traversal a good decade later.
>>> Part 2: 1960s
This survey was originally published on the Ionarts
If you have additional information about recording dates, availability, cover art -- or corrections and additions -- your input is much appreciated.
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