When Beethoven died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna, he had been ill for over three months, in which time he completed no compositions. It was the culmination of a long string of illnesses; his work was seriously interrupted in 1811, 1812, 1816-17, 1821, 1825, and from December 1826 to his death. (His extensive meddling in the lives of various relatives had also interfered with his musical productivity.)
We ran an ANNIVERSARIES piece for Beethoven's birthday in 2010 that looked at recordings of his symphonies. Now, to mark the anniversary of his death, we look at his piano sonatas. Beethoven transformed the sonata nearly as much as the symphony, his 32 canonical works (which doesn't include the early C major sonata and F major sonatina without opus numbers or the three "Elector" sonatas Wo47) in the form varying greatly and achieving, especially in the last five or six, an epic, questing quality that's highly personal.
But even his first published sonatas were bigger and bolder than what had come before (he planned it that way, holding back his earlier and smaller efforts, though when one of his brothers began helping him with his finances later on, a few leaked out). The growth of the Romantic movement can be traced quite clearly in the evolution of his style in the sonatas.
These works have become such cornerstones of the piano literature that nearly every pianist, including some who really didn't seem to like them or have much sympathy for their style(s), has recorded some of them. What follows is by no means definitive, but we hope it is at least useful. (To add to its usefulness, I've included, for the complete sets, comparative pricing, showing the CD list price and the iTunes price.)
For a recommendation where the limitations of both recording technology and the pianist's digital dexterity don't distract, it's hard to beat Richard Goode (1943- ). By eschewing eccentric interpretive choices -- his readings all seem eminently sensible -- and playing with welcome flexibility and tonal allure, Goode produces a cycle that stands up to repeated listening well. His creamy legato is applied lovingly in lyrical moments, he has a sense of humor (as did Beethoven) that's too often lacking in other accounts. And, for those who care about such things, it's digital.
If Ashkenazy's (1937- ) interpretation of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata weren't so willfully askew in terms of structure and tempo, and if the sound were better in Nos. 30 and 32, his cycle would be the top recommendation. It has my second-favorite "Appassionata" ever, overflowing with emotion but also superb pianism. Throughout the cycle he displays his sterling technical command, beautiful tone and phrasing, plenty of power where apt, a tasteful avoidance of cheap sentimentality, and abundant feeling, grace, and dignity. He just misses the consistency of Goode's cycle due to the flaws mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, but on the other hand some of his readings have an intensity that Goode's don't quite achieve.
Schnabel (1882-1951) was an Austrian-born child prodigy who made his public debut at age eight. As an adult, he was known not for his virtuosity (though he was reportedly a spectacular player until his later years) but for the penetrating intelligence of his interpretations, especially of Beethoven and Schubert. In this regard, his most enduring monument is his complete set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, recorded in 1932-35 at Abbey Road Studios in London. It was the first time a pianist had recorded the entire group of 32 sonatas, but was a natural occurrence for a pianist who had done his own edition of them and become noted for playing the complete cycle in concert, starting in 1927 (the centenary of Beethoven's death). Few recordings from this era are note-perfect to begin with, since modern editing techniques had not yet initiated the mania for correcting even the tiniest mistakes. Schnabel's lack of concern for virtuosity and his overwhelming interest in producing musically logical and apt readings also led him to take great risks. His tempos in fast movements can often seem extreme, though in the most famous example -- the first movement of the Sonata No. 29, the "Hammerklavier," difficult enough under any circumstances -- he was merely honoring the composer's own metronome marking (so often contested or ignored by other pianists). But Schnabel referred to music such as Beethoven's as "better than it can be played," and throughout the eight CDs of this box set, there is the sense of an intellect bringing out many layers of meaning far beyond the superficialities of more technically precise pianists. Certainly risk should be an inherent aspect of Beethoven interpretation, for any performance of the mightier works here which carries no impression of danger misses the point. Schnabel's derring-do in the fast movements is balanced, however, by a noble tenderness in slow movements. He also avoids the pitfall of making these disparate works sound the same. His approach to the earlier sonatas grants them the relative lightness they require; beyond that, each sonata emerges as an organic and distinct whole with a personality of its own. That, ultimately, is Schnabel's supreme achievement.
One cannot address the subject of the Beethoven piano sonatas without mentioning the greatest modern practitioner of the Schnabel school, the recently retired Alfred Brendel (1931- ). He recorded three complete cycles: the first, freshest, and most vigorous on Vox, the next two for Philips being more mature, austere, and monumental (also in better sound and with more attention paid to ensuring correct notes). He has no interest in seducing listeners to his view of Beethoven via tonal allure or Romantic phrasing; most of what expressiveness he does project in his dry (though occasionally dramatic) interpretations comes from control of dynamics and tempo. His feeling for overall structure makes his playing compelling nonetheless.
It was once a given that if one found the scruffy sonics and scrabbling technique of Schnabel's cycle to be barriers to one's enjoyment of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, then one of the cleaner (in both domains) cycles of Kempff (1895-1991) was the answer. True, the first one is monophonic, but a far superior mono to that granted Schnabel, perfectly listenable. When Kempff re-recorded his cycle in stereo, it drove his earlier effort from the market for decades, but eventually in the CD age his mono cycle resurfaced in a very compactly packaged eight-disc box (well, actually nine, counting a bonus disc memorializing Kempff that includes, among its mix of the pianist/organist playing and speaking, the track "On My Interpretation of Beethoven" and his 1936 recording of the "Pathétique"), and that's the one to have. While subsequent decades have brought more recommendable sets, his playing of the early sonatas in particular is still arguably unsurpassed in its blend of charm and unexaggerated power (whichever is apt at a given moment) with an utterly organic approach. Although the stereo set is in better sound, his technique falters more often therein, so don't be tempted by the dual channels.
Unjustly Pithy Summaries of Great Pianists' Beethoven Cycles
Claudio Arrau (Philips, 1962-85, 14 CD w/complete piano concertos, Triple Concerto, variations) OP/NA
Arrau (1903-1991) plays beautifully, but is often too stodgy and cautious. Look for the final three sonatas separately; their heavenly breadth and majestic gravity are not to be missed.
Wilhelm Backhaus (Decca, 1953/'58-69, 8 CD) $45/NA
This German piano icon (1884-1969) of bygone days makes Arrau seem like a daredevil in comparison, and lacks his beauty. The "Hammerklavier," the only mono recording here and (of course) the earliest, does impress with its direct power.
Barenboim (1942- ) plays so beautifully, but then he needs to prove that he's an Artist who has Ideas, which leads to exaggerated gestures. Prime example: his (and it's definitely his as much as Beethoven's) "Pathétique."
I suppose there may be people who want to hear the famous opening movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata played with dark foreboding, as though it's the prelude to a tragedy. Not me, though.
Claude Frank (Music & Arts [originally RCA], 10 CD) $66/NA
Excellent interpretations from a long-time Schnabel pupil, but occasionally lacking polish; a worthy secondary recommendation made even more cherishable by excellent booklet notes from Michael Steinberg and Mr. Frank (1925- ) himself, including the story of how No. 16 saved him from the Nazis.
Andras Schiff (ECM, eight separate CDs)
Schiff (1953- ) is sometimes interesting, but frequently too fussy or eccentric. If he'd stop trying to be so clever and just play the sonatas without his intellectual baggage, I'd like him more.
Of course, many great Beethoven pianists did not record all the sonatas, though a few are still working on it (go Maurizio!). Here are some favorites. To keep the scope of this article from getting out of hand, here I'll stick to collections dominated by Beethoven's sonatas, though that does leave out Gieseking's astonishing 1938 "Waldstein" and 1939 "Appassionata," featured in the second volume devoted to him in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series.
Nos. 3, 7, 12, 17-18, 23, 27-29, 31; Diabelli Variations (Praga, 1959-1986, 4 CD)
The thunderous power and startling insights of Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) made him an ideal Beethovenian, though he played only 22 of the 32 piano sonatas. All the performances here were taped at concerts in Prague (unlike some Richter material on Praga, the sound quality is okay throughout). Richter greatly preferred the stage to the studio, and most of his greatest recordings were done live. The Beethoven Piano Sonatas have rarely, perhaps never, received performances more powerful than these. Richter's tone is huge, yet he uses a wide dynamic range and excels at quiet passages. His tempos are chosen purely on musical grounds, with no concern for wrong notes, yet even in unedited live recordings, mistakes are few and, aside from a momentary lapse in the "Hammerklavier," inconsequential. The "Appassionata" -- a specialty until he dropped it for a long period -- is especially impressive in this 1959 recording, perhaps his best performance of that or even any work. Certainly it reflects the "Appassionata" appellation as much as any reading ever has, and is my favorite. (Also exceptionally noteworthy is his "Diabelli" Variations from 1986. The intensity with which he endows this piece is genuinely surprising, and while that leads to a bit of blurring in Variation 27, in general his precision is amazing considering the abandon with which he's playing.) Richter's rhythmic lilt, vivacity, and -- in the quieter passages -- light touch in the Sonata No. 28 (1986) are very special. Richter's playing of Beethoven is grand and monumental, yet utterly human and broadly varied. This needs to come back into print!
Nos. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3; 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 "Hammerklavier"; Bagatelles for Piano, Op. 126 Nos. 1, 4, 6 (BBC Legends, 1975)
The unquenchable "Hammerklavier" here, live at the Aldeburgh Festival, is to make up for the slightly marred one above.
Richter in Leipzig: Nos. 30-32 [also Brahms & Chopin] (Music & Arts, 1963)
This recital program from Richter's peak period is recommended in the strongest terms on account of their unsurpassed power and poetry. This is music-making of transcendent nobility, expressing all the profundity of these great works without becoming lugubrious. The fugue of the finale of No. 31 is positively hypnotic in its concentration. The concert was recorded by the official East German radio network, so the mono sound is pretty good, though with a slight bit of tape flutter in No. 30. (There are lots of Richter Beethoven performances available, mostly from concerts; an evaluation of all of them is beyond the scope of one article. But in general, the best come before the '90s, and the most impetuously exciting ones are from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Doremi's Sviatoslav Richter Archives, Volume 1, with Nos. 28 and 30 from Macedonia [30 July 1971] and 31-32 from Tokyo [1 June 1974] are also spectacular and, if you don't mind a bit of tape wobble and a slightly clangorous instrument in Macedonia, highly recommended.)
The imperial precision of Pollini's (1942- ) renditions is so powerful in these works that Pollini's Apollonian approach and Beethoven's late sonatas, so elevated above our petty world, seem made for each other.
Pollini has slowly but surely released a number of Beethoven sonata albums; it looks like he's going to give us a cycle. Based on his results so far (21 of the 32), if he finishes and his technique is maintained to the end, his may become the top cycle recommendation.
Gilels (1916-1985) died before he had completed his cycle, so this set lacks Nos. 1, 9, 22, 24, and 32, alas (though it does include two very early sonatas that most sets don't have). As I wrote for the classical online store Ariama.com, "One of the defining characteristics of "The Little Giant"'s artistry is that, no matter how loudly he plays -- and big dynamic contrasts are integral to his style -- his tone always has a depth to it that keeps it from sounding like mere clangorous banging. Here, the outer movements resemble storms and the middle movements seem like prayers (though of course it's never that simple all the way through), his singing tone and cantabile phrasing in lyrical passages the kind of old-fashioned tonal luxury we rarely hear nowadays. For Beethoven playing, this is a pretty good combination, and while Gilels offers no unique insights – his are bread-and-butter, steak-and-potatoes interpretations – neither does he ever overreach. Like most Russian pianists of his generation, he was trained in the Romantic style as a given, but compared to his peers there's a stronger streak of Classical precision and objectivity, less willfulness, his tempo proportions unforced and natural. Match that mindset to his flawless technique and glorious tone, and mid-'70s Deutsche Grammophon's cool analog sound, and you've got impeccable readings"
Deliberately provocative recordings from a man (1932-1982) who despised most middle-period Beethoven sonatas. His infamously perverse "Pathétique"/"Moonlight"/"Appassionata" LP inspired critical conniptions. However, he recorded Nos. 30-32 first, in 1956, and those are more respectful, though still rather eccentric in their lightness, some extreme tempi, and his skipping of some repeats in No. 30.
In between Schnabel and Brendel came Serkin (1903-1991 -- same years as Arrau!), with their sternly rigorous approach to structure but with much sturdier technique than the former and more expressiveness than the latter. His "Hammerklavier" is a mighty interpretation. Like Schnabel, he too goes for broke in the finale, and he too doesn't quite pull it off -- though he comes closer than Schnabel managed to -- but because the overall shape of the line keeps its impetus, the slight sloppiness can be forgiven. (This album is out of print, but easily found on Amazon. The disc with the last three sonatas was last available as an import; it too is out of print, but also on Amazon, more expensively. iTunes has a pairing of Nos. 29 and 31.) His readings of Nos. 30-32 are quite fiery, definitely an alternative to most, yet completely convincing.
The instruments that Beethoven himself played were rather distant ancestors of the modern piano. Hearing Melvyn Tan (1956- ) play these familiar sonatas on a fortepiano is revelatory, especially the "Moonlight." The lighter dynamics and more complex, organic tone of the fortepiano make the music seem quite different. And, for that matter, Tan is an excellent player; other fortepianists have Look for them used, since EMI apparently can't be bothered to keep them in print. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.