What a remarkable achievement this is. I wouldn't suggest that Daniel Barenboim is the only pianist whose Beethoven one really needs to hear – not at all. However, both seeing and hearing him play all 32 sonatas over the course of a few days allowed me to get inside Beethoven's world more deeply than is often the case. The masterclasses – nearly six hours of them – additionally allow us to hear Barenboim talking about the music in both its grand line and its tiny details. Although the younger pianists are the ones receiving formal instruction, anyone who observes them interacting with Barenboim must come away with greater insight not only about pianism, but also about Beethoven's music.
The sonatas were performed live in June and July 2006 at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. The first DVD begins with Sonata #1, and the fourth ends with Sonata #32, but that doesn't mean that Barenboim performed these works in chronological order. Instead, there were eight concerts, each including an average of four sonatas. Often the sonatas were arranged chronologically within each concert, but not always. Each of the first four DVDs contains two concerts. The director was Andy Sommer. Using several cameras and a host of camera angles, Sommer and his team bring the viewer very close to the piano, Barenboim, and the music. There are profile shots of the pianist, overhead shots, numerous shots of his hands, across the piano shots, and so on. The cutting from one shot to another often is quick, but it is done with an almost musical rhythm. As a result, the cinematography does not seem either obtrusive or intrusive, even when we seem to be inches away from Barenboim's face. Much of the time his eyes are closed, and even when great beads of sweat are flung from his head, he remains immersed in the music.
Barenboim has lived with this music for a long time. He recorded it in his twenties for EMI, and then again for Deutsche Grammophon. Impressively, he plays all of the sonatas from memory. (That's about 11 hours of music!) His interpretations have mellowed over the decades, and his musicianship has increased accordingly, without any loss of technique. Musically, the pianist that Barenboim most resembles in these new recordings is Alfred Brendel. These performances have character, although the character is predominantly Beethoven's, not the pianist's. There's little that is flashy about these readings, although there are some wonderful moments of risk-taking – and they all pay off. (Indeed, the last movement of the "Hammerklavier" is terrifying.) Barenboim doesn't play to the crowd, and that's part of what makes this set so satisfying to live with. He gives us his understanding of the music's style, its context, and its form. That's not nearly as simple as it sounds. In short, Barenboim somehow manages to keep Beethoven dangerous without emphasizing his extremes.
The masterclasses on the last two DVDs are at least as interesting as Barenboim's concerts. These took place in Chicago in January 2005, in front of a small audience. Several of these pianists, Lang Lang in particular, already are familiar names, and I expect all of them will be well-known by the decade's end. (I especially liked young French pianist David Kadouch's playfulness in the first movement of Sonata #16.) The format is more or less the same in each class. Barenboim and the younger pianist come out together, and the younger pianist plays a sonata movement uninterrupted. Then, after a few words of praise, Barenboim critiques the performance, and works with him on a phrase here and a section there. We also get a few minutes to "meet" the pianists, who tell us a little about themselves and their background. After the class per se is over, there are questions from the audience, and then (in some cases), the same music performed in concert by Barenboim. I enjoyed the dynamic between the older pianist and the younger ones. The closing credits show them all dining together in a Chinese restaurant, obviously enjoying each other's company as equals. It would be interesting to ask the six "pupils" what they have retained from their masterclass with Barenboim, now that two years have elapsed. These two DVDs were directed by Allan Miller.
This set also includes a thick booklet. It will help you to find the sonata you are looking for quickly, and it will give you additional food for thought via excellent sonata-by-sonata essays by William Kinderman. Both the sound (LPCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.0 surround) and the full-screen image are superb.
These DVDs are a must for anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with Beethoven's sonatas.
Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle