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Thread: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

  1. #61
    Captain of Water Music
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    Todd...
    I hope that you have listened to more Beethoven cycles by now.Do you mind sharing your opinions on them?

  2. #62
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kromme View Post
    I hope that you have listened to more Beethoven cycles by now.Do you mind sharing your opinions on them?


    Oh, yes - I've added 15 or so cycles to my collection over the past 18 months or so, and I have detailed listening notes on 11 of them. The problem is finding the time to write. I've been too busy to write much lately, though I hope to write about the remaining cycles starting sometime later this year.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  3. #63
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    I am looking forward to it.

  4. #64
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    "Oh, yes - I've added 15 or so cycles to my collection over the past 18 months or so, and I have detailed listening notes on 11 of them. The problem is finding the time to write. I've been too busy to write much lately, though I hope to write about the remaining cycles starting sometime later this year."

    I'm looking forward to it too! Your write-ups are the most insightful Beethoven sonata reviews that I have read, bar none.

    - augustwest

  5. #65
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Todd - keep up the excellent work, you're an inspiration.

  6. #66
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    Todd - I'm new to the forum, and found your reviews fascinating. I have one question for you about op27 no.2 - I went to see a live performance by Andras Schiff at Carnegie Hall in New York a while back in which he played this sonata, and I was astonished to hear him play the 1st movement with the pedal down all the way through - Out of your collection of Sonata cycles do any other pianists do this when playing this movement?

    Matthew

  7. #67
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    Quote Originally Posted by hert0440 View Post
    Out of your collection of Sonata cycles do any other pianists do this when playing this movement?


    Yes, some do, and many of course use it extensively. I can't remember which ones hold it throughout at the moment though. Schiff explains his choice in the "interview" accompanying the recording of the work.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  8. #68
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    Thats interesting to know. It is so amazing, and apparent from your commentaries, how the same pieces can be interpreted so differently by the different pianists.

    matthew

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    Todd - last night was I listening to the semi finals of the Sydney International Piano Compeition, and to my delight TWO of the competitors (both Russian) played Beethoven's Opus 106 (The Hammerklavier) ... I was in heaven each time. It's undoubtedly my favourite of his final masterpieces and an incredible indurance test for any pianist, as you well know.

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    Thanks Todd!

    Great notes on these cycles. Most of them I own, but some I do not.

    I realize you have a lot more that you did not post, however I wanted to make sure that you checked out Robert Benz' cycle on Thorofon records. It is not available in a box set and is rather difficult to collect as the cycle is spread among 9 separate discs.

    Anyway, I spent a small fortune acquiring them and have never been happier with a cycle. Of course, it is not the be-all-end-all. Like you I don't think that any cycle is perfect...but it is my absolute favorite out of the 53 complete cycles that I own.

    Thanks again Todd for spreading some intelligent criticism of the new testament recordings.

    Cheers!

    Stephen

  11. #71
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    I wanted to state my appreciation of your efforts as well, Todd. Unlike many of the members on this thread, I am new to the Sonatas. I have Pommier's recording of 11-20 as well as Goode's recording of 21 thru 23.
    Going thru your thread, I did not see reviews of the cycles by both men. Did I just miss the reviews or are they coming in the future or are you planning not to do a review of those two? Can you give me some insight into either of them?
    One suggestion- Is it possible to create a Table of Contents for the various reviews with links to where they are located in the thread? That would make them even more useful.
    Having said all that, I want to thank you again. Even if you never answer my question or write another review, what you have provided is the most comprehensive guide that I have yet seen to these wonderful recordings.
    You, sir, are a cultural hero.

  12. #72
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    It has been years since I last posted in this thread, but I have some more cycles I've listened to, so I figured I might as well post some more.


    --


    Daniel Barenboim - EMI, 2005, DVD


    Part 1


    Concert 1


    Daniel Barenboim has joined the elitist of elite categories, atleast as far as complete cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas areconcerned. He has recorded the cycle three times, a feat otherwiseaccomplished only by Alfred Brendel. (Or maybe not. An Andante boxrefers to three complete cycles by Friedrich Gulda, meaning one hasnot been released, and I’ve read from a not necessarily reliablesource that Maurizio Pollini has recorded three complete cycles buthas nixed their release(s).) That doesn’t necessarily mean thatBarenboim’s interpretations are among the best in this most augustcanon, but at least he has shown a dedication to the music, and onecan hear how his approach has changed over time. I have writtenabout his prior EMI cycle already, and I have listened to his 1980scycle on DG a couple times now, and if I ever find the time to writeabout it, I will, but for now I decided I might as well write abouthis brand spankin’ new set on EMI. On DVD!


    That’s part of the attraction, of course, this being the firstcomplete AV cycle to make it to market. Truth to tell, I don’treally care about the ‘V’ part; I’m all about the ‘A.’ (It’s really inconvenient: how am I supposed to listen to this setat work or while on the road?) Plenty of other people may getexcited about the prospect of finally seeing a pianist play theworks, though, and for them this is a first. So this may or may notbe a must-get cycle for non-musical reasons.


    The cycle was performed in a series of eight concerts in Berlin inthe Staatsoper Unter den Linden in June and July 2005. I don’tknow if any studio touch ups were made afterward, but that’s notreally too important, at least to me. For the most part, this is a“live” cycle, with all that implies. What it often implies issome memory lapses, extraneous noise, and, most importantly, moreenergy of the type that only comes when an artist plays in front ofan audience. The first two traits are largely absent, though thelast one is not. That in turn implies something worth hearing. Andpossibly watching.


    Rather than cover the sonatas chronologically, this time aroundI’m going to report on them as they appear on disc, concert byconcert. And the first concert’s a goodun, at least from arepertoire standpoint: Op 2/1, 31/3 and 106. Barenboim opens thecycle with Beethoven’s first sonata – always a good idea. Rightfrom the start one can hear that this cycle is different from bothprior cycles, though one can hear echoes of both of them, too. TheAllegro opens vigorously, with a nicely brisk tempo and unusuallyclear playing, as one generally expects from this pianist. Theslower sections sound notably slower, so as to add as much contrastas possible. Some may find the contrasts contrived, others not. I’mmostly in the latter camp. Decidedly slower is the Adagio, which isvery slow. It almost sounds exaggerated, particularly whencompared to the first movement. But it sounds lovely and precise,and, once again, Barenboim plays with exemplary clarity. I foundmyself wishing the music would flow just a little bit better, butlistening to it isn’t exactly hard to do. The Menuetto sticks witha broad overall tempo, which in turn results in startling dynamic andtonal contrasts when the fast, descending upper register figuresarrive. The overall effect is to make the movement slightly stormy,an effect enhanced by the charming middle section. Barenboim takesthe concluding Prestissimo at a nice tempo, though I suppose it couldbe faster. One thing is certain: the playing is stormy. Anotherthing is also certain: the playing is strong. There’s energy anddrama aplenty, with near ideal clarity at all times. Throw in agentler, more beautiful middle section for contrast, and one is leftwith a much more than solid open to the cycle. A strong case couldbe made for this being the best opener of Barenboim’s three cycles.


    Op 31/3 reinforces the positive first impression. Barenboim opensthe Allegro in a stately and relaxed fashion, then segues to moreenergetic but never pressed playing. While there are slight hints ofmischief, the overall mien is a bit on the serious side. Throughout,subtle dynamic, tonal, and tempo changes add color to the music, andthe movement ends with powerfully played chords. The Scherzo is acorker: fast, scampering, with nicely judged chords (strong but notoverpowering ) to interrupt the flow, it really sounds fine. No,it’s not caution to the wind playing, and outright fun is in shortsupply, but it’s still superb. Some potential troubles pop up inthe Menuetto. Stately and lovely, it may sound too manicured forsome tastes. Some of the dynamic transitions can sound a bit stiff,depending on what one listens for, but in the context of thisperformance, they work very well. The Presto con fuoco ends the workon a very strong note. Fast, filled with pep, and almost fun,Barenboim brings it home. Great dynamic contrasts and superbly cleanfingerwork and a sense of inevitability make this one heck of an end. As with the first sonata, one could argue that this is the best ofBarenboim’s three takes. Could it be because these are taken fromconcerts?


    Quite possibly, because the same thing can be written about theHammerklavier. As with his prior recordings, Barenboim usesbroad tempi throughout the work, but also like his prior recordings,he pulls it off. Only better. The Allegro sounds grand andorchestral enough to satisfy Big Sound fans, yet it’s incisiveenough for those wanting more bite and clarity. I find that thisrecording flows better than the prior two, the first in particular,while maintaining the benefits of the big ‘n’ slow approach. There’s a certain lightness to it, by which I mean it’s not atall ponderous. Something else that’s missing is Barenboim’sbreathtaking clarity, at least in fast passages. Barenboim isn’t akid anymore, and some of the more complex passages present more of achallenge to him now. It’s not that’s he’s sloppy or misses awhole lot, but something had to give, and it’s clarity. Not in theslower music, though – it’s to a very high standard. That Timeis winning is also made clear in the rougher, less precise, lesssculpted sound. But – and this is a biggie – it sounds morealive, more vital, despite the changes. (Or maybe because of them?) The same more or less holds true for the Scherzo, with its broadtempo, powerful (though not overwhelming) playing, and its “chunky”sound. Where Barenboim shined as a young man he also shines as amore mature artist: the Adagio is wonderful. Only more so. Theplaying is slow but pregnant with drama and tragedy from the get-go,though it never just pours forth in sloppy fashion. The even slowersecond section sounds both pensive and tense, and while slow, themusical line not only never breaks, it never even slackens. Themovement gradually morphs into a solitary lament – a fact (orimpression, I guess) that really only hit me around 10’ in – thenit changes again to placid rumination, all while effortlesslymaintaining the musical line. It defies gravity, if you will, in thebest late-LvB fashion. The coda ends up sounding like a distended,sad farewell. Superb. The final movement opens with a clear, lucid,at times dexterous Largo which then changes over to a fugue of superbclarity. No surprise there. The music assumes a brighter demeanorthan I thought it would, and Barenboim’s technique seems moreassured here than in the opening movement, a few brusque or slightlyrough patches notwithstanding. The tempo always sounds just right –never pressed, never too slow – and the slow, baroque passage isplayed in a wonderfully serene manner. A rousing coda wraps up asuperb Hammerklavier.


    The first concert must be considered a success. I preferBarenboim’s 2005 take on all three sonatas more than either of hisprior takes. Make no mistake, though, this is Daniel Barenboim atthe keyboard, and certain traits remain. He never really pushes anytempi, so those who want him to let loose will not be happy. Hisstyle can sound overly manicured and even precious at times, thoughthere’s less of that this time around. Barenboim’s tonal palateis broad, but not as broad as before, though that is influenced bythe recording. Overall, I’m quite happy and want to hear more. Hopefully I can, um, attend another concert in the next day or two.


    To production values, they’re to a high level, but not thehighest level. Image quality is very good, though a number of operasI have surpass it (like Gardiner’s Les Troyens). Sound isclose – one can see how close the various microphone arrays are –and at times the upper registers are a touch too bright and clangyand metallic, and the sound lacks some bass oomph when it ought nottoo, and quite a few pedal stomps can be heard. These are quibbles. I have more serious reservations about the videography. There areclose-ups of Barenboim’s face from various angles, and close-upsand even closer close-ups of his hands throughout the concert. Idon’t need to see his cuticles, and I can probably do withoutseeing so much sweat, and I can certainly do without the HolySkewed Angle Batman! views of those ten fingers that pop up allthe time. I did find one way to avoid distraction – I shut my eyesfor extended stretches. I may end up leaving the television off atsome point during the cycle. Anyway, the musical message still getsacross, and that’s what counts.






    Concert 2


    The second concert opens with Beethoven’s second sonata. Not abad choice. (Okay, Barenboim had 32 good choices to choose from.) And as before, Barenboim sounds slightly freer and more flowing thanin his studio bound efforts, his first one in particular. TheAllegro vivace moves along at a nice pace, though he takes somepassages at a slow pace for variety. The middle section is weightyand offers a nice contrast to the surrounding music. At times theplaying can sound just a bit precious, or what might be construed asprecious. The Largo is slow, slow, slow, but then it is aLargo. Barenboim plays with great precision and deliberateness, andimbues the music with ample dynamic and tempo changes. It’s notquite stiff and not quite flowing; it can and does sound a bitartificial, but in a most artful way. The third movement is pluckyand perky, clearly articulated, and fun, if still a bit formal attimes. The last movement is light and breezy and smooth and flowing,generally speaking, with a nicely vibrant middle section. All told,this is well played and once again represents an improvement over thestudio cycles.


    The Tempest follows, and here one can have intermittentdoubts. The opening arpeggio of the Largo is slow and rich andgenerally quite fine, though the music that immediately follows itsounds a bit stiff. The second arpeggio, not surprisingly, is alsoquite fine, then Barenboim moves into the faster meat of the movementvery well – the playing sounds vibrant and vigorous and urgent. Others sound more intense here, but this works. Indeed, this is yetanother case where the live performance seems to trump the studioversions. The doubts come in the Adagio. Don’t get me wrong, it’ssuperbly played and sounds wonderful, but rarely if ever does theplaying seem to delve beneath the surface. The music sounds glossedover a bit. Some will hate it, some will love it, others (like me)will like it, with reservations. The concluding Allegretto openswith forlorn horn calls that quickly evolve into playing of someurgency. The most musically robust patches can sound a bit strainedand stiff, but then Barenboim will slow up and quiet things down andplay with uniquely intriguing ghostly restraint before returning to a(not quite blazing) gallop. This is a good reading, but I can’treally say it’s as good as the third sonata from the bunch or acontender compared to the greats.


    The second little Op 14 sonata comes next, and what a fine versionit is! The Allegro sounds smooth, soothing, and lyrical – perhapscoy to some – and boasts superbly light, fast, and clear runs. More drive arrives in the middle section, but overall the openingmovement sounds wonderfully graceful and flowing. The Andante comesacross as a slightly variegated march characterized mostly by anemphatic yet soft beat and gentle overall character. Barenboimcloses with a Scherzo as light and charming and flowing as theopening movement. This is a delightful performance.


    The concert closes with the Les Adieux sonata. The openingAdagio comes across as cool and remote but still despondent. This isanother case where some may very well find Barenboim’s playing toomanicured. Anyway, as the piece swells during the Allegro, anappropriately celebratory sound ensues, though one riddled withresignation. Throughout, Barenboim plays with splendid dynamic andtonal variation, something he does pretty much all the time. TheAndante espressivo is more emotionally engaging than the openingmovement, though I’d hardly describe it as heart-on-sleeve musicmaking. Still, Barenboim conveys a sense of inner sadness andturmoil, and the coda is simply breathtaking, with whisper quietchords trailing off into silence. To close, Barenboim plays theVivacissimamente wonderfully. It opens in a wonderfully swelling,grand, and ebullient manner, though informed by a very propersensibility. It maintains this approach more or less to the end,with a quasi-orchestral sound part of the payoff. It may not be oneof the very best versions yet committed to disc, but this is a fineversion that ends a fine concert. I certainly hope the next sixconcerts are as good (or better!) than the first two.




    Concert 3


    The third concert opens with a Big Name work – thePathetique – and this version is the best of Barenboim’sfour recordings of the piece. The Grave opens with a near perfectchord, strong but not fortissimo thunder, then moves on to somewhatslow and definitely deliberate playing that, when alternated withthat strong chord, expertly builds up tension until the beginning ofthe Allegro molto e con brio. The Allegro section is then suitablyswift, with superb dynamic contrasts, especially from the right hand. Contrary to his prior recordings, this one flows and stayssatisfyingly fast throughout, with only a few, very effective slowsections for contrast. (I generally prefer a fast Op 13, so keepthat in mind.) After a nice, strong end, Barenboim plays the Adagiocantabile in a most ingratiating manner. It’s slow, clear,meticulous, and calm. As the movement progresses, the music takes ona stately feel. It’s here where some may find the playingcontrived, but I like it. The concluding Rondo opens in bright,clear, and on the broad side of fast style, and as the movementprogresses, Barenboim hammers out some notes here and there which,when combined with the nice tonal and tempo variation, creates a mostsatisfying take. Barenboim still doesn’t ascend to the heights inthis work, but he’s moved up the mountain.


    He’s much nearer the peak in the Op 26. I figured that afterhearing Gerard Willems’ breathtaking account of this sonata only amatter of weeks ago I’d be waiting for another contender. (I hopeto cover Willems’ cycle in the near future.) I was wrong. Barenboim opens with an Andante as poised and attractive as one couldwish for, and as usual, his playing sounds as clear as one couldwant. The first variation acts as an extension of the opening theme,while the second sounds quick and plucky and enthusiastic, with anice, brief, loud outburst thrown in for good measure; the thirdvariation is somber and serious, a sort of mini-funeral march, whilethe fourth sounds light and crisp and choppy; the fifth is lyricaland rich and mesmerizingly clear. The Scherzo is downright brisk andsuperbly accented to open, and things only pick up from there. Theruns are vital and dexterous, and plenty of rhythmic snap pervadesthe playing. Then the core of the work arrives, and Barenboim playsa funeral march fit for a hero. Somber and tense to open, Barenboimplays with world-class oomph, emphasizing the grandiose nature of themusic, and in the middle section he accelerates the playing nicely. The closing Allegro opens at a nice pace, but sounds a bit flatcompared to what came before. Quibbles quickly fade as the playingpicks up the pace and the dynamic range. A very strong andcontrolled middle section before a potent end caps it off. There arebetter versions out there – by Willems, Frank, and Michelangeli toname three – but this is a contender.


    Next up is the little Op 79. Barenboim plays the Presto allatedesca in a very crisp, forward moving fashion, though he tends tounderplay the cuckoo motif. The off key passage is delivered well,and the whole thing sounds, well, whole. The Andante sounds quickand slightly light, lean, and taut, at least compared to others whomake this a meaty movement, and the middle section sounds simplylovely. The concluding Vivace opens in a light, leisurely mood,moves to a playful and leisurely style, then returns to the openingapproach. Quite good. Perhaps not great, but quite good.


    Straight to the top tier goes Barenboim’s Op 101, though. Nokidding. This is a great performance. The Allegretto ma non troppomay even be slightly faster than normal (very slightly), or at leastBarenboim’s playing makes it sound that way. Additionally, theplaying sounds rich, flows well, and displays a restrained lyricism. The Vivace alla Marcia explodes out of the gate, though hereBarenboim’s usually unimpeachable clarity can in fact be impeached! The trade-off is more drive and oomph. I like drive and oomph. Especially in a march. It’s vital, it’s flowing, it’s beefy,it’s nifty. The Adagio switches gears into a slightly somber mood,where the playing seems to float in the ether, or nearly so. It’squiet and searching, and that works well indeed. The concludingAllegro then arrives with a striking trill and even more strikingleft hand chords. The playing is fast, with remarkable clarity andarticulation and drive and, yes, more oomph. At the same time, themusic sounds just a tad light. Barenboim doesn’t try to make thisthe Maestoso from Op 111. No, he makes it sound joyous at times. And vital. Throw in myriad wonderful little touches, like theveritable swirls of notes just after 5’30”, and one gets a damnedfine recording. Dare I write great recording? I dare.


    After roughly a third of the canon, I must report that I find thiscycle to be the best of Barenboim’s three efforts. He maydisappoint me in the remaining 21 works, but I doubt it. I’ll findout soon enough.




    Concert 4


    The fourth concert opens with Op 10/1, and as before Barenboimdelivers the best version I’ve heard from him. The openingarpeggio is both stronger and faster than I would have previouslyexpected, and the sound remains rich and clear, if also a bit flat. The second theme is suitably slower, remarkably clear (especiallywhen the repeated bass figure underpins the music) and probablybetter than the opening music. And it flows. The Adagio moltosounds slow, rich, and luxurious, but the runs remain light and fast,and dynamic contrasts are fine, and the overall sound is undeniablylovely. As happens on more than one occasion, though, the playing isnot maximally involving. The Prestissimo opens quickly, boasts veryswift runs, and then seamlessly transitions to slightly broad andirresistibly flexible playing. The playing sounds both vital andpliant, a most becoming combo. At times it seems like Barenboim mayactually let loose. An excellent take.


    Next up is the 11th sonata, and here Barenboim again delivers thebest version I’ve heard from him, though here it’s by a prettywide margin. The Allegro con brio opens in reasonably swift fashion,continues to display admirably flexibility, and it not only flows,but it grooves. (Barenboim can’t match Gulda in thisregard, but still.) Smack dab in the middle one gets to hear playingthat’s fast and lithe and spiffy. Following up the fine firstmovement is an Adagio con molto espressione characterized bydeliberate, slow, and beautiful playing of not a whole lot of depth. That’s fine here, though, because that means the music doesn’tsound overthought. As the movement progresses, the playing becomescooler and darker, taking on an almost quietly ominous air. The lastportion of the movement sounds lovely, like the opening, but it alsosounds more distant. The Menuetto opens gently, and sounds smooth,light, and uplifting. The more vigorous music, especially in themiddle section, is strong but not overwhelming, driven but not manic. It’s quite good. To close, Barenboim opens the Rondo in light,leisurely, and charming fashion, before he moves into a middlesection where he delivers potent chords and fast, scampering playing,all while maintaining uncommon clarity. The playing in the lastportion of the movement sounds exaggeratedly slow at times, but sowhat? Another fine reading, though one bound to divide opinion.


    The two little Op 49 sonatas follow, and Barenboim does agenerally excellent job here. The first sonata opens with an Andantethat remains clear and light and lyrical, yet also manages to soundjust a bit substantive. The Rondo sounds unabashedly happy and funand energetic. The second sonata keeps the same sound in the Allegroma non troppo, and throws in some nice bass weight, too. The closingTempo di Menuetto sounds slower and gentler, but stays lyrical, andshows just how well Barenboim can control the bottom end of thedynamic spectrum. Such wonderfully diverse quiet playing is alwaysnice to hear. I don’t know if I’d consider either one a worldbeater, but hey, they’re nice.


    The program ends with the mighty Appassionata. Here’sone work where Barenboim just didn’t produce a great or exceptionalor even appreciably above average reading in either of his two priorcycles. He does much better here. The Allegro assai opens in aslightly brooding style hinting at fierier things to come. When theydo come, Barenboim delivers. With qualifications. Yes, the faster,more intense playing sounds nicely swift and intense, but it’sstill somewhat restrained. The slower playing is notably broad andrich. Throw in numerous minor variations in tempo and dynamics, andBarenboim seems to be manhandling the piece, albeit while wearingvelvet gloves. Some will find it mannered. They won’t (orwouldn’t) find the satisfyingly thundering bass and occasionalintensity mannered, though. Except in the very loudest passages,Barenboim maintains his exemplary clarity, and he brings the movementto a superb end with a massive build-up to the coda. The Andante conmoto sounds solemn and achieves an almost static feel at times. Italso sounds aloof much of the time. The fast variation doesn’tsound particularly fast, but the overall effect is to offer amovement that contrasts significantly with the outer movements. Inthat regard it succeeds. Especially when one hears the concludingAllegro ma non troppo. Strong but not crushing opening chordstransform quickly into playing that is fast and intense, with theplaying only ratcheting up in intensity until it becomes very fast,pungent and nearly grinding. (He never achieves quite the level ofintensity of, say, Annie, but that’s alright.) And there’s morethan ample vitality; restraint is largely thrown to the wind here. The only downside to the movement is that Barenboim omits the repeat. Why? The movement needs it! Without it, it sounds unfinished. Hadhe included the repeat, this would be even better than it is, andit’s pretty damn good. I need to listen to some more.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  13. #73
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    Part 2



    Concert 5

    The fifth concert opens with the great seventh sonata, and what a nice time to hear it, so close to Angela Hewitt’s rather dissimilar take. Differences aren’t apparent in the opening seconds as Barenboim opens the Presto quite quickly, with notable energy, and even some gruff (!) playing, so rare for him. Wait but a few seconds, and Barenboim begins to deploy his standard devices in the slower music, adding color and nuance and subtlety. Some may find it too much, though. But throw in superb clarity for most of the movement, and really, how can one resist? The Largo shows just how effective Barenboim is at imparting a sense of mood in a few notes. The superbly controlled and “expressive” playing very heavily hints at tragedy, but of a somewhat manufactured kind. There’s melodrama and an occasional thickness that may leave some less happy, and yet others may hear in this a saccharine romanticism that turns them away, but I like it. The Menuetto has a very soft, sweet opening, then quickly picks up speed and energy, but it never sounds rushed or anything other than pleasant. Even the big, beefy middle section sounds pleasant. Barenboim opens the concluding Rondo with a slightly broad tempo but quickly and seamlessly changes to a lighter, quicker style that’s all sun and fun. Well, except for the big, bold, assertive Beethoven that shows up later and finds Barenboim hammering away in satisfying fashion. Being live, a few things don’t sound as polished as they otherwise might, but that’s good. Yes, a nice start to a concert.

    The second work is the first of the sonatas quasi una fantasia, and I so wanted a knock-out reading. Alas, ‘twas not to be. (That’s not to say it’s bad.) The Andante theme sounds positively wonderful. Ever so slightly on the broad side, with superb tonal shading and dynamic nuance, and supreme control, it sounds almost like a lost, late Mozart fantasy, emboldened and embellished by the Bonn master. The second theme is decidedly “big” and quasi-orchestral, and works well. It’s in the Allegro where doubts arise. It’s just a wee bit too slow and some of the phrasing sounds exaggerated, though not in an entirely unpleasant way. The second section here is more forceful, though, but it’s also more forced. The Adagio, somewhat against expectation, sounds rich and somber and lovely, and then Barenboim moves into the last part of the work with a nicely paced second try at an Allegro and an even-more-lovely-than-before pass at the main slow theme. There are good parts, wonderful parts, and so-so or not so good parts. It never jells into a truly satisfying whole.

    Next up is the Op 90 sonata, and as with the first work in the concert, Barenboim plays in a style some may not fancy. The opening movement sounds bold and rich but not overwrought when played loud and lovely and tonally variegated in a most pleasing manner when played more quietly. The long, fast run is superb, and the more urgent passages take on the just the right degree of angst mixed with late-LvB goodness. The second movement really is where some may have issues. It’s lyrical and beautiful and a bit contrived. More immediacy would have been nice, but the supreme control and unfailing lyricism still work well enough.

    The concert closes with the Waldstein. This is the best of the three versions Barenboim has recorded. I’ll just get that out the way right now. It’s not “perfect,” and there are some nits to pick, but this is one fine reading. The Allegro con brio opens swiftly, in well articulated fashion, in contrast to Paul Lewis’ less enthralling open to the same piece. Barenboim makes sure to take the time to let things breathe when needed, and throughout the movement the music waxes and wanes in scale and breadth effortlessly. Barenboim will go right ahead and play at different dynamic levels simultaneously – and uncommonly clearly – to superb effect, especially when he plays the right hand melodies quickly and comparatively lightly while underpinning the proceedings with a beefy left hand. Every aspect of the playing is sublimely controlled without any garishness or excess gilding of the lily, if you will. Of course, others may demur. The Introduzione offers a stark contrast to not only the opener, but to many other takes. It sounds slow and funereal at the outset, yet it also manages to sound mellifluous and, well, golden. Granted, this can be construed as a surface effect, but what an effect! And then, before you know it, the movement ends! No foolin.’ It floats by. The concluding Rondo finds Barenboim playing in his best quasi-orchestral style, but not before he should. The movement starts off slowly and gently and only gradually builds up in tension before erupting – and erupt it does – into its orchestral grandeur on the heels of a magnificently dispatched long trill. At times Barenboim plays seemingly without restraint, or at least with a shrewdly calculated facsimile of romantic abandon. There’s more gruffness, maybe a slip here or bunched chord there, or whatever, but this is, again, live playing, and while not wild-man intense, the vitality of the performance and the control of Barenboim’s playing, mixed with that golden hue, make it hard for me to say anything but good things. (Okay, so maybe there aren’t any nits.) Yes, this is Barenboim, and if you just don’t like Barenboim, you may not like this, but it’s unambiguously better than his two prior efforts with this piece. It’s also one hell of a way to end a concert.

    I think it’s safe to say at this point that this is shaping up to be Barenboim’s finest cycle, and one filled with goody after goody.


    Concert 6

    The sixth concert opens with a work generally well-suited to Barenboim’s style – the Pastorale. As is his wont, Barenboim takes the opening Allegro at a slow pace, and adds a certain richness to the music, and here he plays with a not-quite-droning left hand and singing right hand to tickle one’s ears. The more Allegretto or Adagio tempo may leave some wanting a bit more verve (and I can’t say that I wouldn’t have liked that), but Barenboim’s constancy and tonal refinement work to gradually dissuade the listener that the playing sounds too slow. The middle section retains the overall slowness of the movement, but Barenboim still manages to ratchet up the intensity appropriately. See, there’s no need to rush. The Andante maintains the leisurely pace, but the temperature cools a bit, and nice, clean left hand staccato keeps one’s attention. The middle section lightens up a bit, inducing (perhaps) a smile and it sounds relaxed and relaxing, rather like a stroll through a, well, a pastoral landscape. Not too surprisingly, the Scherzo stays on the broad side, but it’s buoyant and bouncy and rhythmically satisfying. The middle is appropriately groovier and admirably clear. The work closes with a Rondo possessed of a slightly faster overall tempo than before, with a gently rocking left hand and gorgeous right hand melodies. It doesn’t plumb the depths, I suppose, but does it really need to? Nah. It’s quite good. Perhaps the best of Barenboim’s three recordings.

    No such qualification is needed for the next sonata: this 2005 performance is Barenboim’s best traversal of Op 2/3. The Allegro con brio is light and quick and fun, and tonally varied, with the ascending passages in particular demonstrating vigorous, clear, and (possibly faux?) grooviness. (How does one fake grooviness?) Barenboim keeps the energy level high and the playing comparatively direct throughout, though he does indulge his fancy a little just after 9’ when he plays with hints of later, lusher romanticism. The Adagio offers a significant contrast, sounding slow and rich, with a right hand that sounds more yearning than urgent. The dark, quasi-ominous tolling from the left hand is a nice touch. Perhaps the playing may strike some as too artificial, but I find it artful. The Scherzo is quick and articulate and charming – but in an assertive way. In the midst of this, Barenboim fills the middle section with numerous little touches like micro-pauses and almost imperceptible tempo accelerations and decelerations. Ya gotta listen close. The playing makes ya wanna. The Allegro assai is wonderfully done: sprightly, light, dashing, clear, and played with admirable dexterity throughout, Barenboim caps an unambiguously successful reading.

    The concert continues with a solid Op 78. The Adagio cantabile sounds both Grand and light at the same time – a nice feat – though one might complain that the left hand playing is approximately 6.27135% too stiff to properly underpin the right hand chicanery. 93%+ is still an A, though! The second movement sounds looser and funner yet still manages to maintain a sense of not-quite-late LvB gravitas. Perhaps some of the playing would strike some as too obvious point-making, but it’s fine for what it is.

    The concert closes, like the nest two do, with one of the last three sonatas. Here’s it’s the 109. (Can you figure out the order of the next two?) And here is one of the relative weak spots of the cycle. The Vivace ma non troppo starts gently and beautifully, immediately establishing that late-LvB sound one craves, though of a distinctly plush variety. It’s ethereal and abstract, though some may say it’s precious and contrived, too. The Prestissimo just isn’t prestissimo enough: it’s too slow and thick and unfocused at times. Flashes of detail-oriented brilliance can be heard, but the whole suffers a bit. The extended Andante and variations opens with a predictably lovely theme at an unpredictably quick speed. (Quick for Barenboim, not someone like Gulda.) The first variation slows up to offer more rich warmth. The second is mostly notable for its distinct but never edgy staccato. The third variation starts off too thick and slow and groove-deprived to make it ideal, though these traits all shine through later on. Then after that, the variations and coda assume a slow, ethereal, and very much beauty-focused style. The lead-in to the final climax is fast and demonstrates superb clarity, and the whole thing fades away into serenity. Doesn’t sound bad, huh? It ain’t. But something just doesn’t quite click. It’s a collection of moments and instances, not a unified whole. In this music that’s a liability.


    Concert 7

    The penultimate concert starts off with the always enjoyable starter to the Op 31 trio. Once again, Barenboim delivers his best recording to date. The Allegro vivace is clear and quick, with foot stompin’ pedaling aplenty, and ample good humor for good measure. Barenboim adds his unique little touches everywhere, but not only do they never obtrude, they help. The Adagio opens quite slowly, with blurred trills superimposed over a dragging left hand. If that sounds negative, trust me, it’s not meant to. Everything seems to unfold at a stately pace, yet nothing sounds stuffy or stiff. It’s laid back and warm. The middle section picks up the pace, as it should, and the return of the opening material has a bit more drive than the first time around. Barenboim injects a little drama near the end with some nice ‘n’ beefy bass trills. The Rondo is taken at a slightly broad tempo, but this merely allows for greater dynamic and tempo contrasts later on. Superb clarity and articulation remain constant, and with (and because of) the broad-ish overall tempo allowing for nice variation within the movement, it never drags and never feels rushed. It feels just about right.

    The Moonlight is next, and depending on what one wants, this can also be considered the best of his three recordings. The Adagio sostenuto is suitably slow and somber, and hazy, and more than a little funereal. Barenboim’s deft pedaling allows for sharp-ish attacks that lack excess edge, with the decay bleeding into the body of the music. Quite nice. The Allegretto sounds crisper and brighter but not excessively jolly, while the Presto agitato ends the piece by storming out the gates. Fast, with rolling bass, vehement intensity, and assertiveness bordering on aggression, Barenboim nails it. He knows when to slow up, too, making this a very satisfactory version.

    Next up is the little sixth sonata. The Allegro opener sound light and sunny as it should, and the second theme sounds a bit weightier – though not too weighty – again as it should. At times the playing does tend to be just a bit too thick for the music, but such instances are infrequent and brief. The Allegretto sounds richer and more serious, if not quite serious, offering a nice bridge to the very quick, snappy, light, and downright fun Presto closer. Why no repeat?! Why!? Had it been there, this would be even better.

    The concert ends with, and I’ll bet you guessed it gentle reader, Op 110. The Moderato cantabile is mostly about certain things – beauty, warmth, fluidity, grace and lyricism, all of the highest order – and decidedly less about others – seriousness of purpose, musical philosophizing, and ethereal, spiritual transportation. How do you like your late LvB? I tend to prefer more of the latter, though I appreciate the former. Anyway, the Allegro molto is taken at a rather measured though flowing tempo, basically creating a movement possessed of not a little grandeur. The Adagio ma non troppo opens with a distant, despondent feel – to the good – while sounding quite attractive – to the better. The fugue is measured, superbly clear, and grows in scale and strength as it unfolds. The post-fugue music assumes new levels of solemnity and desperation, though Barenboim’s refinement and control never abandon him. The repeated chord build-up to the inverted fugue is gradual, terraced and ends up nice and loud (though I could have done with even more), and the fugue itself is as good as the original one. The final build-up at the end is massive, has a few smudges in it, but otherwise caps off an excellent reading of the work and yet another fine concert.


    Concert 8

    The concluding concert starts off with the first of the Op 14 sonatas. Alas, this is another weak-ish spot. The Allegro is taken at a relaxed tempo, is delivered in a relaxed style, and is generally upbeat and warm, and maybe just a bit whimsical. The Allegretto is notably slower, with some faux drama thrown in the mix, and yes, it too sounds rich and warm. The Rondo sounds relaxed again, though it does have an upbeat mien and a vigorous middle section, and a rich, warm sound. It’s that rich and warm sound throughout that weakens it. It’s too ripe, too romanticized for my taste. It’s not even close to bad, but I’m afraid it’s not really close to great either.

    Next is Op 7. The Allegro molto e con brio again finds Barenboim adopting measured tempos, and it again finds him playing with superb clarity and nice dynamic contrasts. He just sort of cruises along with some nice little bumps in the road to catch one’s attention. There’s a nice energy level to the piece, though some may want a more muscular, heroic take. Not surprisingly, the Largo is slow, but the musical pulse remains steady. The long pauses are none too long, and ample power is on display when required. The Allegro sounds warmer and more lyrical and is downright comfortable. The middle section is quicker, of course, and displays clipped phrasing. The Rondo sounds graceful, cheerful, and, again, warm, with a predictably vital middle section. The work tapers off gradually and gracefully. Another fine if not world-beating performance.

    The next to last sonata is Op 54. Here the opening section of the In tempo di menuetto sounds slightly slow but rich and lovely and most lyrical, and maybe just a little soothing. After this the octaves come as something of a surprise: loud and striking and biting and clear and somewhat fast, and displaying deliciously stable rhythm. Each reappearance of these two sections offers a nice alteration of the one before, culminating in trills evoking a surprisingly late-LvB-like sound. The second movement is a bit slow, and pulls off a neat trick: the sound is smooth yet each note is distinct and clear. At times Barenboim seems to “float” the notes while still remembering to add oomph when needed. Generally I prefer a slightly more driven approach to this, but this is curiously effective.

    The cycle ends with – you guessed it – Op 111. A solid choice to close the cycle if you ask me. The Maestoso starts with spaced-out opening chords, though a dark, ominous tone is immediately apparent. Then Barenboim really stretches out the slow music that follows. Too much? Nah. Now the music sounds brooding. Then the big bass trill leads strongly into the Allegro, which then builds up even more until the playing is muscular and imposing and almost fearsome. A high level of tension is maintained throughout the movement, and dynamic contrasts are informative. One huge problem here is the imagery. The camera angles and movements suck. They’re comically bad in a sonata that simply doesn’t need such distractions. Hideous, hideous stuff. Best to turn the TV off here. Back to the music: the Arietta is slow to the point of being almost static – but that’s good! – and it sounds absolutely lovely and transcendent. The second half tosses in sublime serenity. The first variation starts off precise and measured, and sounds lighter, though not at all lightweight. It’s almost as if, after arriving in musical Elysium, one ought to just enjoy one’s self with no heavy burden. It works. The second variation is likewise broad, but it’s also meticulously clear and rhythmically secure, and both fluid and tastefully restrained. The third variation is weighty yet snappy, if perhaps less obviously “jazzy” than in some other recordings. Then the music transforms into what it should, nay, must be: utterly transcendental, ethereal, and almost magical. The playing is a bit slower than I usually prefer, but Barenboim pulls off the trick of suspending time here, erasing any doubts. The long chains of trills, here a bit blurred at times (just an observation, not a criticism), start off slow but gradually builds up as the surrounding music transports the listener even more securely into the wonderful musical world Beethoven surely meant listeners to experience. At the end one just marvels in the journey, in the beauty. This is one extraordinary recording of this most remarkable sonata. (Really, is one better?) A noteworthy achievement.

    I’d have to say that Barenboim has definitely produced his best overall cycle with this most recent offering. Not everything is perfect, and some of his earlier recordings are as good or better as some here, and one can always find something to quibble about. But taken as a whole, this is an excellent set, nearing greatness. Some may even say Barenboim achieves it. Others would say he doesn’t. That’s because some of Barenboim’s traits that so displease some are still here to hear. He generally favors broad tempos. He can’t resist, it seems, playing almost too beautifully at times. This is gruff, rough stuff, right? Well, maybe not. Some of the playing does sound too saccharine, too contrived, too whatever. But such instances are rare and cannot detract from the overall achievement. There’s an energy, a life to the music this time around that was absent to one degree or another in the two earlier studio cycles. It seems as though Barenboim is at his best before an audience. Maybe he’ll record more music this way in the coming years. I hope so, because I want to hear more music making like this from him. Now I just have to burn the DVDs to CD so I can enjoy the purely musical aspects of the set away from the television. But I will say, if you plan on buying just one DVD cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas, make it this one, and make it snappy.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  14. #74
    Captain of Water Music
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    Dieter Zechlin and Takahiro Sonoda


    My Beethoven sonata collecting, both complete sets and individual discs, has fallen off over the last year or so, but every once in a while I like to try something new. Since I’ve already got all the Big Names, and most of the not-so-big names, new cycles will almost invariably be by lesser known or downright obscure pianists. These two epitomize that. I’ve known the name Dieter Zechlin for a while, but only because he recorded a complete cycle for Berlin Classics for the bicentenary of Lou’s birth. Takahiro Sonoda is a name I’d not even seen until a couple months ago. He’s a Japanese pianist who recorded for decades and recorded at least two, and possibly three, complete cycles. I ended up with his Denon cycle, recorded for the bicentenary of Lou’s birth. Who wins, as it were?

    I’ll start with Zechlin. I cannot recall ever reading any glowing praise for his cycle, and one person who had heard the cycle mentioned its straight-forward and somewhat cold sound. That about sums it up. There is more to Zechlin, though. For one, he tends to adopt comparatively brisk tempi. This lends vigor and energy (if not perhaps youthful energy) to the early sonatas, and some at least superficially exciting passages in later works like the Waldstein and Hammerklavier. It also tilts the cycle more to the earlier works. Zechlin is at his best when playing the more exuberant works. The Op 2 sonatas come off very well, as does Op 7, the first two Op 10 sonatas, and Op 22. When the musical lifting becomes heavier, he begins to show his limitations. The Op 31 sonatas, for instance, are somewhat lacking in the flexibility and humor I tend to prefer, though some of the individual movements come off very well – the opener for the first and the closer for the third, say. The later sonatas reveal more limitations. Zechlin sounds as though his technique is far more than up to the challenge, but his playing becomes colder, more detached. So the aforementioned Waldstein takes on a cool slickness, the Appassionata a detached, calculated fieriness. An at times exciting, but cool Hammerklavier ends up leading to well played but too distant late sonatas.

    I don’t mean to be too hard on Mr Zechlin. Again, his technique is very good, and he doesn’t play too willfully. It’s just that he doesn’t play with a great deal of character. Overall, I’d say his cycle is decidedly average, which means that there are obviously much better available, but also much worse. Indeed, his more or less relentlessly straight-forward approach may even be a good introduction for some. Sound is of its age, which in LvB cycles means too close and too dry and too artificial. To see what Zechlin can do, I also opted for his Schubert sonata set, and for some reason he’s better there, especially in the more virtuosic pieces (D845 and D850). Go figure.

    Sonoda is different. His approach to Beethoven is almost devoutly reverential. (This is also true of Akiyoshi Sako and, even more so, Ikuyo Nakamichi – perhaps it’s a relatively common approach for Japanese pianists?) He adopts slightly slower tempi, especially at the beginning of works. This leads to him sounding almost stiff at times. He lingers on tiny details at times, though never for too long, and will seem to almost lose the big picture of a work to focus on little details. He eschews virtuosic displays. This approach leads to a different style of cycle from Zechlin’s. Sonoda is definitely at his best in the later works, and perhaps a bit lumbering in some of the earliest works. In this regard he reminds me of Craig Sheppard. His style wouldn’t really seem to guarantee success in some sonatas, but it frequently does. Once out of the less than ideally played very early sonatas, his approach does start to pay dividends. The first truly great sonatas – Op 10/3 and the Pathetique – come across with more than enough gravitas. The two sonatas quasi una fantasia, which might seem to suffer from Sonoda’s style, come off very well. Indeed, somehow Sonoda manages to sound too stiff and fussy in the first, yet still deliver a reading that, overall, is most satisfying! The Op 31 sonatas all sound excellent. The first opens stiff and uncompromising, but can one detect whiffs of fun? The second movement is exceptional, starting off with mockingly stiff left hand playing. And a fun closer reveals Sonoda’s true outlook. The other two sonatas in the set also work better than expected. The Waldstein ends up being a bit of a clunker, but after that Sonoda moves from strength to strength. Though Sonoda generally downplays his technique, the Appassionata is powerful and thundering. The Les Adieux, somewhat like 27/1, manages to succeed despite some mannerisms, here (perhaps) too much attention to details. Op 90 is a blockbuster reading, one of the best I’ve heard, and then the last five sonatas all sound superb. Sonoda’s attention to detail is evident, but he also manages to focus on the big picture. The Hammerklavier is energetic enough in the opening movements, searching enough in the slow movement, and a model of contrapuntal clarity in the last movement. The last sonatas all sound quite fine, even if a few quibbles show up – the big build-up in 110 isn’t big enough, the trills in 111 not clear enough. The quibbles do not, however, prevent Sonoda from playing with that late-LvB goodness the works deserve.

    Sonoda’s cycle is definitely the better of the two, though I can’t say he challenges my established favorites. He is definitely above average, though. Until now, Akiyoshi Sako seemed to deliver the best cycle from Japanese pianists, but now I’m not so sure. Disregarding that ultimately inconsequential qualifier, this is an excellent cycle. As to sound, well, it’s like Zechlin’s in that it is too close and too dry, but it’s also too metallic and harsh. There’s audible ringing at times. I’m not sure if this is an accurate representation of Sonoda’s tone; I also picked up his Diabelli variations which sound more tonally refined (though it is best listened to in mono given the recording technique). I also got his Bach recordings, which have a similar sound and approach. As here, he largely succeeds there, though not perhaps as a world beater.


    While my LvB collecting may have dropped off, there are still good thing out there for me to hear.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  15. #75
    Captain of Water Music
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    Ian Hobson

    Ian Hobson’s cycle was never high on my list of cycles to hear. Indeed, I’d largely forgotten about it until I picked up a disc of Michel Block playing some Ravel and Falla works with Mr Hobson conducting. Alas, that disc for the Zephyr label did not find Mr Block in top form, and I found Hobson’s conducting not especially inspired. But his name popped back on the radar. So I did the (almost) inevitable and bought the New Testament. It ain’t too bad. It ain’t great, either.

    The biggest problem with the set as a whole is that there’s what I can only describe as a generic sound to it. Hobson adopts generally sensible tempi – not too fast, not too slow. He plays with an attractive sound, though it’s a bit soft, blunting some of the attack where needed. His dynamics are well controlled and wide ranging, but rarely does anything really grab the listener’s attention. (Well, this listener, at any rate.) There’s heft and drive and rhythmic snap, but perhaps not quite enough. It’s largely undistinguished.

    That written, I noticed one positive thing about the cycle. Hobson gets better as the cycle goes along. I definitely prefer cycles where the quality improves in the later works, but even so it’s hard to think of true standouts. The critical Op 31 sonatas all fare well, though none really engross like they should. The Appassionata is a bit broad, and much of the time lacks energy, but in certain portions, especially in the last movement, Hobson plays with real flair and power. The Hammerklavier is a bit long, but the great Adagio is very good. Even parts of Op 111, especially the second movement, sound excellent.

    This is a decidedly middle of the road cycle, interpretively and qualitatively. I can think of literally dozens of cycles I prefer, though I can also think of more than a few that Hobson trumps. It wouldn’t be a bad introduction to the works for a newcomer, but I don’t see it satisfying in the long run. I’ll find out.

    Sound, though, is quite good. It appears that the folks at Zephyr went for that audiophile, minimalist set-up, so the piano is a bit distant, but dynamics are excellent and tone on the full side. And though irrelevant, I must note the poor packaging. I don’t know who thought up the idea of black lettering on a charcoal gray background, but deciphering what’s on an individual disc from the cover can be challenging.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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