The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 4 (updated 2018)

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Our traversal of the greatest Beethoven recordings continues, from the string trios to the piano sonatas...

beethoven

String Trios, Op 9 No 1, Op 9 No 3, Op 3

Leonid Kogan vn Rudolf Barshai va Mstislav Rostropovich vc

Supraphon

Here is the latest instalment of Supraphon’s issue of classic concerts given in Prague in the 1950s and ’60s. This one dates from June 2, 1960, at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. And what a line-up: three supreme Soviet artists, for whom Czechoslovakia represented a taste of freedom while the West remained out of bounds. And there’s freedom aplenty in these vigorous, highly charged performances: just sample the concluding Presto of Op 9 No 1 or the opening movement of the E flat major Trio, Op 3. These are strong-jawed readings with a great sense of purpose and, even when some of the details are a bit shaky (and tuning and ensemble less than pristine), they are never less than compelling ...

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Complete Works for Cello & Piano

Adrian Brendel vc Alfred Brendel pf

Philips

The Brendels, father and son, give us Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello. You’ll have to search long and hard to hear performances of a comparable warmth and humanity or joy in music-making. Sumptuously recorded and lavishly presented (including engaging family photographs), the sonatas are offered in a sequence that gives the listener an increased sense of Beethoven’s awe-inspiring scope and range.

CD 1 juxtaposes early, middle and late sonatas with a joyous encore in the Variations on Mozart’s ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. CD 2 gives us the Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, continues with the remaining two sonatas and ends with the other Magic Flute Variations, on ‘Bei Männern’.

Pianist and cellist are united by a rare unity of purpose and stylistic consistency, whether in strength and exuberance, an enriching sense of complexity or in other-worldly calm (often abruptly terminated). What eloquence they achieve in the opening Adagio of the Second Sonata, what musical energy in the following Allegro molto tanto presto, instances where Beet-hoven’s volatility is always tempered by the Brendels’ seasoned musicianship ...

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Complete Works for Cello & Piano

Xavier Phillips vc François-Frédéric Guy pf

Evidence Classics

This is the third instalment in François-Frédéric Guy’s traversal of Beethoven and the first to delve into the chamber music. He is well matched in intellect, musicianship and temperament by cellist Xavier Phillips as they journey from the ridiculous (the Variations on ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’, in which Guy dispatches the virtuoso piano part with complete aplomb, to delectable effect) to the sublime (the Op 102 Sonatas). The two sets of variations on themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute are a very different proposition from the ‘Conqu’ring Hero’ but just as persuasive, with the Op 66 set given a particularly sparkling reading.

Competition is of course thick on the ground, not least from Isserlis and Levin (playing a tremendously characterful McNulty fortepiano), which was an obvious choice for Record of the Month in February 2014. But Phillips and Guy deserve that accolade just as richly and their utterly different sound world is equally riveting.

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Cello Sonatas

Steven Isserlis vc Robert Levin fp

Hyperion

A cellist who tends towards introversion; a fortepianist who tends the other way. Put them together and something magical happens within the tensions they engender. Beethoven’s directions for the introduction to Op 102 No 1 are explicit – Andante, softly singing, sweetly, tenderly – and Steven Isserlis, playing a gut-strung 1726 Stradivarius, invokes its beauty in hushed, withdrawn tones. Robert Levin, the moderator on Paul McNulty’s copy of a 1805 Walter & Sohn instrument equalising dynamics, matches him in essence and aura. Think of repose in C major for 27 bars until the switch to the main movement; and the sudden shock of a fortissimo chord in A minor is ruder than it would be on a modern piano. No politesse from Levin. What follows is an untrammelled Allegro vivace, two-in-a-bar as marked, tempo changes graphic, every sforzando or accent stabbing the texture, Isserlis unfurling the vehemence also implicit in his lines.

Recover from the onslaught and return to the beginning, to Op 5 No 1. Repose in C major wasn’t a one-off. It manifests itself again, but now in F major and at a slower tempo, Adagio sostenuto. Isserlis has the theme but Levin is no mere accompanist, fastidious in his role as a partner yet one who never overwhelms the cello, even in the chords and roulades during a brief spell of agitation towards the end of this introduction. Rapid pacing isn’t demanded in the ensuing Allegro – now a plain instruction without an oft-added stipulation, and in common time – of mercurial moods ever present; and laid bare by a duo with no inhibitions about extremes in expressive flexibility.

What did Beethoven often add? Try Allegro molto più tosto presto in the first movement of Op 2 No 2. Pretty quick, pretty specific about how quick too; but Isserlis and Levin are also thoughtful in ensuring that the running triplets for the keyboard aren’t reduced to a frantic, unchecked clatter. Yet power and thrust are unassailable, reinforced by lacerating bowing from Isserlis in the development where screws are tightened – in a movement believed to be one of Beethoven’s most notable achievements, no less so for its expectantly prefaced, grandly fantasia-like 44-bar Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, for Isserlis and Levin an arch, declamatory and lyrical. With something more – a trenchant edge, probably arising from the timbres of the fortepiano, its light action and fast transients ...

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Violin Sonatas, Vols 1-3

Alina Ibragimova vn Cédric Tiberghien pf

Wigmore Hall Live

Review of Vol 3: This third disc concludes Ibragimova and Tiberghien’s live set of the Beethoven sonatas. The qualities of the earlier instalments (8/10, 12/10) – polished technique, spontaneity and deep engagement with the music – are as strongly apparent here. One small illustration will demonstrate the special character of these performances. The fourth of the final variations of Sonata No 6 begins with three unaccompanied violin chords played piano. Often, violinists seem embarrassed by these, or else create a somewhat eccentric effect. Not so Alina Ibragimova, who gives them the character of tentative, fearful steps into the unknown, to be reassured by Tiberghien’s suave reply. The following minor-key variation shows how both players can bring flexibility and fluidity to their performance, with the confidence that they will be sympathetically accompanied.

By comparison, the excellent studio set by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov appears more studied. In the middle section of Sonata No 3’s Adagio, each of their perdendoso phrases ends in a ghostly whisper – a wonderful effect. Ibragimova and Tiberghien don’t attempt anything so extreme but their playing has a powerful sense of progress through the series of modulations, born, I imagine, out of the intensity of live performance. In the finales of this sonata and of the Kreutzer, Faust and Melnikov are slightly faster and more brilliant but Tiberghien and Ibragimova, with superb poise and control, appear more carefree and joyful. And their account of the Kreutzer’s first movement, with its Furtwängler-like broadening at the climax of the coda, unmistakably exposes the music’s portrayal of emotional turmoil. Duncan Druce (July 2011)

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Complete Violin Sonatas

Isabelle Faust vn Alexander Melnikov pf

Harmonia Mundi

The musical sleight of hand used by these expert players to focus the very different character of each sonata is in itself cause for wonder. Though quite different as musical personalities – Faust, subtle and quietly formal; Melnikov, a master of the meaningful pause – the combination of the two fires a laser between the staves. Fleetness and elegance are very much to the fore in the Op 12 set, beauty of tone, too, especially in the First Sonata.

The Spring Sonata is lyrical and playful, the opening as easy-going as anyone could wish, the Adagio like a song without words, Faust’s tone warming but relatively restrained, Melnikov a discreetly supportive partner. The more dramatic sonatas are muscular yet very light on their feet. The A minor, Op 23, is Sturm und Drang with a vengeance, and both players make a point of (metaphorically) pursing their lips: in fact, you sometimes feel that what isn’t being expressed outweighs what is. Of the three Op 30 sonatas, the kernel is the C minor, where Faust and Melnikov strike a perfect balance between fire and ice. Their little “freedoms” are very telling but although the shaping of phrases is obviously the product of considered teamwork, you never feel that they’re playing safe. Cautious Beethoven makes for a very passionless partnership, and there’s no sense of that ...

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Complete Piano Sonatas. Eroica Variations. Diabelli Variations. Six Bagatelles

Friedrich Gulda pf

Orfeo

Orfeo’s nine-disc set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (plus the Eroica and Diabelli Variations, and the Bagatelles Op 126, all from 1957) is no mere duplication of what we already have. Indeed, this 1953-54 Austrian Radio sonata cycle falls almost exactly midway between the constituent parts of the Gulda cycle that Decca issued on LP and subsequently reissued as an 11-disc set in its “Original Masters” series. Oddly enough the first point of contrast to hit home, specifically in the early sonatas, is the enormous superiority of Orfeo’s recordings, which are clearer, better focused and generally far more listenable than their Decca counterparts. As to the performances, I would cite in particular the slow movement of Op 7 which has greater breadth than on the 1957 Decca stereo recording (Gulda’s Amadeo version was swifter even than the Decca), and where the poise and pacing are, to my ears, pretty close to perfect.

The first movement of the Decca Moonlight, infamous in its day, swims in a sea of sustain pedal, an effect that Gulda hadn’t yet hit upon in the early Fifties, much to my relief. The Tempest, Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas are startlingly red-blooded (the Waldstein’s first movement in particular is charged with an unusually high level of nervous energy) and the later sonatas capture that almost inexpressible combination of physical confrontation and spiritual engagement that only the greatest Beethovenians can muster. Gulda was always at his best in the last three sonatas but his Decca Hammerklavier, for all its trimness and brilliance, rarely matches this one for impact, while the later Diabelli, although hugely energetic where needs be, is less relentless than Gulda’s airless later recording which made a brief appearance here on a Harmonia Mundi CD. Gulda could charm, too, and I would challenge anyone to find a more lyrical reading of the G major Sonata Op 14 No 2, save perhaps Gulda’s 1959 radio recording recently put out on Audite. It is hardly credible that all this interpretative accomplishment was achieved by a pianist who, at the time, was still only in his early twenties, and who would subsequently divide his musical activities between the Viennese classics and varieties of jazz. There are certain records that seem to capture the very moment when a fledgling virtuoso first confronts a great corpus of musical work, and this marvellous set represents such a confrontation. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rob Cowan (October 2010)

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Complete Piano Sonatas

Wilhelm Kempff pf

DG mono

Wilhelm Kempff was the most inspirational of Beethoven pianists. Those who have cherished his earlier stereo cycle for its magical spontaneity will find Kempff’s qualities even more intensely conveyed in this mono set, recorded between 1951 and 1956. Amazingly the sound has more body and warmth than the stereo, with Kempff’s unmatched transparency and clarity of articulation even more vividly caught, both in sparkling Allegros and in deeply dedicated slow movements. If in places he’s even more personal, some might say wilful, regularly surprising you with a new revelation, the magnetism is even more intense, as in the great Adagio of the Hammerklavier or the final variations of Op 111, at once more rapt and more impulsive, flowing more freely. The bonus disc, entitled ‘An All-Round Musician’, celebrates Kempff’s achievement in words and music, on the organ in Bach, on the piano in Brahms and Chopin as well as in a Bachian improvisation, all sounding exceptionally transparent and lyrical. Fascinatingly, his pre-war recordings of the Beethoven sonatas on 78s are represented too. Here we have his 1936 recording of the Pathétique, with the central Adagio markedly broader and more heavily pointed than in the mono LP version of 20 years later.

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Complete Piano Sonatas

Artur Schnabel pf  

EMI/Warner/Musical Concepts

Schnabel was almost ideologically committed to extreme tempos; something you might say Beet­­­hoven’s music thrives on, always provided the interpreter can bring it off. By and large he did. There are some famous gabbles in this sonata cycle, notably at the start of the Hammer­klavier, with him going for broke. In fact, Schnabel also held that ‘It is a mistake to imagine that all notes should be played with equal intensity or even be clearly audible. In order to clarify the music it is often necessary to make certain notes obscure.’ If it’s true, as some contemporary witnesses aver, that Schnabel was a flawless wizard in the period pre-1930, there’s still plenty of wizardry left in these post-1930 Beethoven recordings. They are virtuoso readings that demonstrate a blazing intensity of interpretative vision as well as breathtaking manner of execution. Even when a dazzlingly articulate reading like that of the Waldstein is home and dry, the abiding impression in its aftermath is one of Schnabel’s (and Beethoven’s) astonishing physical and imaginative daring. And if this suggests recklessness, well, in many other instances the facts are quite other, for Schnabel has a great sense of decorum. He can, in many of the smaller sonatas and some of the late ones, be impeccably mannered, stylish and urbane. Equally he can be devilish or coarse. At the other extreme, he’s indubitably the master of the genuinely slow movement. For the recorded sound, there’s nothing that can be done about the occasional patch of wow or discoloration but, in general, the old recordings come up very freshly.

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Complete Piano Sonatas

Paul Lewis pf

Harmonia Mundi

Review of Vol 4: Only an extended essay could do justice to the fourth and final volume of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven sonata cycle. But space, sometimes the critic’s friend, here his enemy, forbids much beyond generalisation when faced with such overall mastery and distinction. Like me, you may well cherish your beloved sets by Schnabel, Kempff and Brendel (to name but three), but Lewis surely gives you the best of all possible worlds; one devoid of idiosyncrasy yet of a deeply personal musicianship.

Where else can you hear Op 10 No 2’s madcap finale given with such unfaltering lucidity and precision? Try Op 28’s finale for an ultimate pianistic and musical finesse or the opening Allegro where Lewis makes you conscious of how the music’s gracious and mellifluous unfolding is momentarily clouded by mystery and energised by drama. In such hands the final pages of Op 111 do indeed become “a drift towards the shores of Paradise” (Edward Sackville-West) and throughout all these performances you sense how “the great effort of interpretation” (Michael Tippett) is resolved in playing of a haunting poetic commitment and devotion. Such playing is hardly for lovers of histrionics or inflated rhetoric, but rather for those in search of other deeper, more refreshing attributes, for Beethoven’s inner light and spirit. Somehow Lewis’s quiet and distinctive voice can lift even the most familiar phrase on to another sphere and his playing throughout, shorn of accretion, makes all these sonatas shine with their first radiance and eloquence. Admirably recorded, this three-disc set is crowned with a scholarly and illuminating essay by Jean-Paul Montagnier. Bryce Morrison (June 2008)

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