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Blu-ray Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 734804

Complete Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata for Piano #1 in F minor, Op. 2 #1
  • Sonata for Piano #2 in A Major, Op. 2 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #3 in C Major, Op. 2 #3
  • Sonata for Piano #4 in E Flat Major, Op. 7
  • Sonata for Piano #5 in C minor, Op. 10 #1
  • Sonata for Piano #6 in F Major, Op. 10 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #7 in D Major, Op. 10 #3
  • Sonata for Piano #8 in C minor "Pathetique", Op. 13
  • Sonata for Piano #9 in E Major, Op. 14
  • Sonata for Piano #10 in G Major, Op. 14 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #11 in B Flat Major, Op. 22
  • Sonata for Piano #12 in A Flat Major "Funeral March", Op. 26
  • Sonata for Piano #13 in E Flat Major "Quasi una fantasia", Op. 27 #1
  • Sonata for Piano #14 in C Sharp minor "Moonlight", Op. 27 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #15 in D Major "Pastoral", Op. 28
  • Sonata for Piano #16 in G Major, Op. 31 #1
  • Sonata for Piano #17 in D minor "Tempest", Op. 31 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #18 in E Flat Major, Op. 31 #3
  • Sonata for Piano #19 in G minor, Op. 49 #1
  • Sonata for Piano #20 in G Major, Op. 49 #2
  • Sonata for Piano #21 in C Major "Waldstein", Op. 53
  • Sonata for Piano #22 in F Major, Op. 54
  • Sonata for Piano #23 in F minor "Appassionata", Op. 57
  • Sonata for Piano #24 in F Sharp Major "À Thérèse", Op. 78
  • Sonata for Piano #25 in G Major, Op. 79
  • Sonata for Piano #26 in E Flat Major "Les Adieux", Op. 81a
  • Sonata for Piano #27 in E minor, Op. 90
  • Sonata for Piano #28 in A Major, Op. 101
  • Sonata for Piano #29 in B Flat Major "Hammerklavier", Op. 106
  • Sonata for Piano #30 in E Major, Op. 109
  • Sonata for Piano #31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110
  • Sonata for Piano #32 in C minor, Op. 111
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano
Recorded Live at the Salzburg Festival, Mozarteum, Grosser Saal August 3 - 20, 2014
Bonus: Interview with Rudolf Buchbinder about the Beethoven Sonatas
Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 734804 3Discs 608+36 mins
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan
Also available on 6DVDs 734708: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan
  • Disc 1: Sonatas 1, 10, 13, 5, 12, 22, 4, 17, 18, 14
  • Disc 2: Sonatas 3, 19, 26, 7, 28, 6, 24, 16, 29
  • Disc 3: Sonatas 2, 9, 15, 27, 23, 11, 20, 8, 25, 21, 30, 31, 32

This is Rudolf Buchbinder's third recorded traversal of the thirty-two piano sonatas by Beethoven. Back in the 1970s and 1980s he recorded Beethoven's complete works for solo piano for Teldec, which released them in 1990 and then reissued them in 2012. In 2010-2011 Buchbinder recorded all the sonatas for Sony/RCA and those performances also appeared on disc in 2012. Here Unitel Classica/C Major has recorded Buchbinder live on Blu-ray video in all thirty-two works at the Salzburg Festival, from August, 2014. While three recorded cycles of the sonatas may be a remarkable achievement, what is more impressive is that this was the forty-ninth time Buchbinder has played all the sonatas in a series of concerts! And he has since done them once again to reach fifty!

I reviewed Buchbinder's recent cycle of the five Beethoven piano concertos back in 2012 (Unitel Classica/Cmajor Blu-ray 708904 ), finding it quite impressive. I guess you can say Rudolf Buchbinder is a dedicated Beethovenian, an artist who knows Beethoven's piano works from top to bottom. In a way he reminds me of Alfred Brendel, who also recorded Beethoven's sonatas three times, but his concertos four times. Both artists tend to interpret Beethoven in a reasonably straightforward way, eschewing virtuosity for its own sake and both striving for a fairly objective approach. That said, Buchbinder is emotionally warmer than Brendel, who, though insightful, can come across as cold and sometimes tonally brittle. Buchbinder's tone in general is a bit richer, with somewhat more legato and his tempos perhaps a tad more moderate.

It is difficult to compare Buchbinder's complete cycle with Barenboim's, which I reviewed here in 2013 (EuroArts Blu-ray 2066424), because both are excellent, and when you're evaluating thirty-two performances against another thirty-two how can you fairly make A-B comparisons in light of the fact that the talent and insights of both artists are quite valid and at such a high level. Yes, it can certainly be done, if one devotes the necessary time and effort, but unless one cycle or the other is obviously superior in some way, the task becomes nearly futile. Still, certain judgments can be made. I will say this: Barenboim's mid-1980s sound reproduction and video quality don't quite stand up to the state-of-the-art technology used for Buchbinder's set. So, right off, that may be a deal breaker for many potential buyers. Moreover, though the stopwatch alone doesn't necessarily divulge critical differences, Barenboim's timing for his set is 714 minutes versus Buchbinder's not particularly fleet 608. Inclusion of repeats may play a role in that wide gap, but Barenboim, as I note later on, can stretch tempos a bit. Generally I favor moderate to slightly brisk tempos in Beethoven's piano sonatas and Buchbinder fills that preference without sacrificing any artistic yield.

Regarding the complete Beethoven sonata sets in other formats, I have François-Frédéric Guy on Zig-Zag and Michael Korstick on Oehms, both strong efforts in their very different ways. I also possess huge chunks of other cycles, including the very excellent ongoing one of James Brawn on MSR Classics (thus far a very successful endeavor), Brendel on Philipps and Vox, Biret on Naxos, Ashkenazy on Decca and a few others. But I think there's one aspect where Buchbinder compares well with any pianist – his consistency. Every performance in this set is played with sensitivity and insight, accuracy and a firm grasp on Beethoven's vast expressive canvas. There are no misfires in his set.

The early sonatas – #19 & 20 (despite their numbering the earliest that Beethoven composed) – have an appealing freshness and youthful spirit. The Mozart-tinged First Sonata also struck me as a stronger work than I had previously thought. Wisely, Buchbinder eschews playing the repeats of the development section and reprise in the first movement of Sonata #2, though he of course plays the exposition repeat. Overall, he gives this sonata the combination of joy, humor and grandeur, all in proper measure. The Largo Appassionato may not be paced as slowly as many would like, but Buchbinder doesn't shortchange the music's sense of either angst or nobility.

The Third Sonata is a delight, as Buchbinder deftly captures all the humor and mischief in the first movement, the solemn but lovely lyricism and mystery in the second, the playfulness of the Scherzo and the merriment of the finale. Buchbinder plays the Sixth Sonata as well as I've ever heard it: for once the finale doesn't sound rushed or brittle, but exudes cheer and elegance, even if his tempo isn't quite presto. His Pathetique is grim and filled with tension, and he makes an excellent case for #11, whose first movement may strike many as quirky and not quite first-rate Beethoven. Personally, I think this is a fine sonata, somewhat underrated and thus under-appreciated. The Moonlight features a very convincing opening movement, Buchbinder adopting a moderate tempo and pointing up the music's beauty as well as its sadness without wallowing in the latter mood. The second movement is appropriately perky and the finale dramatic in its drive and power.

The Pastoral features a serene and warm opening movement and a perky Andante that seems to foreshadow Schubert. Buchbinder delivers a deftly mischievous Scherzo and then appropriately returns to a feeling of serenity in the finale, though adding a bit of playfulness too. When I first listened to the Waldstein I thought it sounded a little hectic, perhaps rushed in the first movement. But my second listening convinced me that Buchbinder's brisk tempo and digital clarity made this a fully convincing account and not at all conspicuously fast. The finale is glorious, even if some of the notes in the middle register are not as crisply played as one might wish and despite a couple of instances of hesitations and sudden drops in dynamics that seem slightly overdone. The Appassionata here is strongly atmospheric in its sense of mystery and power in the opening, and the angst and tension that follow are heightened by Buchbinder's innately savvy phrasing and subtle use of dynamics, which in other hands so often turn harsh or jolting in this movement. He utterly captures the stately character of the second movement and both the anxiety and conflict of the thrilling finale.

Another successful performance here is Buchbinder's Hammerklavier, which he shapes into an epic statement (as Beethoven surely wanted), while managing almost miraculously to make it sound less didactic than it usually does. The first two movements get splendid performances and, for once, the third movement at 15:01 certainly doesn't drag: Barenboim by comparison is nearly seven minutes longer here and loses my interest, but his performance is not necessarily unusual, as Christoph Eschenbach surpasses him by three minutes or so! You may find flashier accounts of the finale, but Buchbinder's effort is brilliant both technically and interpretively. His performances of the last three sonatas are fully convincing too. In #31 & 32 he seems to take the listener into a different world, as I think Beethoven was reaching for, especially in the theme-and-variations second movement of Op. 111.

As suggested above the sound reproduction and video quality are first-rate on these three Blu-ray discs. The camera work becomes a challenge in any such effort, as you only have one person and one instrument to focus on. But the video director Frédéric Delesques gives the viewer shots of the pianist from many different vantage points and offers ample closeups of his hands on the keyboard, as well as shots of his facial expressions, which are never overly dramatic or distracting. There is an interesting bonus included on disc 3, an interview with Buchbinder regarding the sonatas – it's in German but offers subtitles in English and other languages. While there are many excellent sets of the Beethoven sonatas on CD to choose from as I suggested above, this is my choice on video and also a very strong contender in any format. Strongly recommended!

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings