Wednesday, August 18, 2010

8/18 Some Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycles

It's been said that J.S. Bach wrote the "Old Testament" with the Well-Tempered Clavier, and Beethoven wrote the "New Testament" with his 32 Piano Sonatas. If you listen to Beethoven's first sonata, Op. 2.1 (1795) and then to his last sonata, Op. 111 (1822), it's pretty clear that music has travelled from an era of aristocratic delicacy and wit to a modern age of comedy, tragedy, triumph and tranquillity. This volcanic evolution of musical conception (not to mention evolution of the piano itself) is one of the reasons why it is difficult to chose a “greatest” interpretation.  However I’ll list a few that have stood the test of time on my iPod…

Friedrich Gulda has recorded the 32 sonatas three times, the last of which (1967) on the Amadeo label is my favorite. Gulda plays with incredible fleetness, so much so that his scalar runs sound almost unearthly. His tempos are easily among (if not) the fastest of all interpreters, yet I never get the feeling that he is rushing or skimming over the music. For sheer wind-in-your-face brio this is my favorite set.  He went on to have a (temporary) jazz career, so maybe that can give you an idea of his intentions....
Gulda/Beethoven on Youtube

Eric Heidsieck is not nearly as well known as he should be. I have no idea why he never got a disc in the Philips “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” set. Nonetheless, his Beethoven is fresh and inventive. I suppose some would say too inventive, since he tends to use quite a lot of rubato (in the true sense of the word: stealing time, not slowing it) and his fermatas seem to have an extra glow around them. Nonetheless every note sounds well thought out and played with conviction. Exciting and unpredictable without being show-offy.
Heidsieck / Beethoven on Youtube

Annie Fischer’s Beethoven cycle was not released in her lifetime. She was never satisfied with her studio recordings, and spent years doing retakes, sometimes section by section. Yet the posthumous release of her studio Beethoven cycle is the most organic of all, in my opinion. Her dynamics are just right, sforzandi are never taken for granted, yet they never sound bangy. Her tempos are not the fastest, but the notes still sparkle. It’s been said that in live performance she might have missed a note here or there, but the soulfulness of her playing completely sweeps away any technical smudges. My over-all favorite set.
Fischer/Beethoven on Youtube

Sviatoslav Richter is my favorite pianist (this month!) but unfortunately he did not perform or record all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas. However of the ones he did perform (about 22) each one is highly personalized and some seem almost too intense for even a modern piano to bear. Additionally his interpretations evolved over his 60 year playing career. His adagios make time stand still. My only issue with his Beethoven is that sometimes I think I hear too much “Slava”, and not enough “Louis”, but if you like Richter then it’s quite a win-win.
Richter/Beethoven on Youtube

Bruno-Leonardo Gelber is another pianist who is strangely missing from the Philips set. His Beethoven set is somewhere between Gulda and Richter - very dynamic, highly skilled interpretations. His accelerandos are galvanizing.
Gelber/Beethoven on Youtube

Finally I have to mention Paul Badura-Skoda’s set (Astrée) on 7 different fortepianos, each one contemporary to the sonata being performed. These are pianos which Beethoven himself might have performed and written these pieces with. His performances are lively and yet respectful. I think the early sonatas are more lively and the later sonatas more respectful (which I think works very well). A must-have if you can find it. There are other more current period cycles out there, but Mr. Badura-Skoda’s set sounds the most like I have travelled back in time to Beethoven's flat.
Badura-Skoda/Beethoven on Youtube

There are many more great cycles I haven't mentioned, including the great historical recordings of Artur Schnabel, the first person to record all 32 sonatas,'s plenty more opinions below...

Beethoven Piano Sonatas: An Overview of Selected Recordings (Ron Drummond, 1996)

A Collection of review threads written by "Todd A" on the Naim Audio Forum:
Anderszewski, Angelich, Ashkenazy, Backhaus, Badura-Skoda, Barenboim (EMI), DVD, Biss, Brautigam, Brendel, Ciani, Freire, Gulda, vol 2, Joyce Hatto (or rather John O'Conor, whose recordings they stole and altered), Heidsieck, Hewitt, vol 2, Kodama, Kovacevich, Kuerti, vol 2, Paul Lewis, Vol. 2, Lipkin, Lucchesini, Nakamichi, vol 2, Nat, O'Conor, Øland, Kun-Woo Paik, vol 2, Perl, Pludermacher, Riefling, Schiff, vol 2, vol 3, Sheppard, Sherman, Silverman, Uchida and Yokoyama).


  1. Thankyou for introducing me to so many "new" Beethoven pianists/recordings---now I have some exploring to do! I was happy to see Richard Goode highlighted in the article by Ron Drummond. I got my first complete set of B sonatas in 1998 and they were Goode!! They are still the backbone of my collection. But for the late sonatas (beginning with Op. 90) I prefer Wilhelm Kempff, who is oddly missing from all the above reviews--unless I missed something! He has his quirks: he omits the long repeat in the first mvmt. of the Hammerklavier---but I defy anyone to find a more soulful interpretation of the long adagio. His tempo is too slow here and there in a few movements, as in the 2nd mvmt. of Op.110. But regardless, I think he is TOPS in the last 3 sonatas, and especially Op.111, which can give me goosebumps even thinking about it. Nobody could possibly surpass Kempff's deep, authentic feeling here. It's a 2-CD set, BEETHOVEN The Late Sonatas, on DG, recorded in 1965. One more favorite by a pianist not mentioned is Op.26 with Pollini (live recording, on DG, 1998)--includes Opp.22 and 56). Just listen to that wild and crazy last movement---the whole CD is worth it for that!

  2. The Kempff cycle was actually the first cycle I ever listened to. I should dig that out. That's funny, I don't know why he's not listed at the Naim Audio forum. I think I read that by 1980 about 60 pianists had recorded B's complete piano cycle so there's alot of em. I heard a live recording of Pollini's Opus 111 that really spun my head. In the same concert he played a Schoenberg sonata. Before the Op.111 of course!