Barenboim’s Beethoven for All: The Piano Sonatas

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Between June 17 and July 6, 2005 Daniel Barenboim performed all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas over the course of eight concerts, filmed in Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden and issued by EMI on DVD. Decca now releases the audio soundtracks on 10 CDs. In general these live performances fuse the best overall qualities of Barenboim’s two previous audio-only Beethoven cycles (I have not yet seen the recently reissued video cycle from the early 1980s directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle).

The EMI cycle he recorded in his mid- to late-20s (Barenboim 1) often struck me as a less seasoned and sometimes crude replica of Claudio Arrau’s expansive, neo-Furtwänglerian Beethoven style, notwithstanding its unquestionable high points. By contrast, the 1981-84 DG remakes (Barenboim 2) are sharper, more focused and disciplined, with more discreet pedaling. Two decades later, the 62-year-old pianist reclaims many of the rhetorical nuances he favored in his youth, but now applies them within a context of greater expressive economy and structural cohesion, although his fingers are not so consistently supple as they were for the DG sessions.

For example, both studio versions of Op. 101’s march movement, with its cruelly exposed leaps and trills, find the pianist’s rhythm fidgety and flustered. Barenboim 3 is a mite labored and employs much more pedal than before, yet the basic pulse is sternly rock solid. While Barenboim 3’s “Moonlight” sonata finale bests its predecessors for intensity and wide dynamic contrasts, Barenboim 2’s smaller-scaled pianism is better controlled. Less demanding movements also reveal fascinating changes, such as Op. 79’s vivace finale, which emerges in all three Barenboim versions at a comfortable moderato. Here Barenboim 1 is heavy and bland, Barenboim 2 more specifically articulated, and Barenboim 3 more genial and nuanced.

Perhaps Barenboim’s latter-day virtues emerge most tellingly in difficult-to-sustain slow movements such as those in Op. 2 No. 3, Op. 7, the “Pathétique”, the “Tempest”, and the “Hammerklavier”, along with movements in variation form (Op. 26’s first movement; the Appassionata’s Andante con moto; Op. 109’s third movement; and Op. 111’s majestically unfolding Arietta). If you don’t mind such live performance residue as minor inaccuracies, occasional foot stamping, and pounding sonority in the loudest passages, Barenboim’s seriousness of purpose and genuine involvement with the music at hand is always apparent.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Arrau (Philips); Gulda (Brilliant Classics); Kempff (DG); Goode (Nonesuch)

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