Beethoven: Complete Sonatas / Complete Works for Solo Piano
I have long admired Rudolf Buchbinder’s magisterial Haydn, but his Beethoven is new to me. Two boxes of it are now available: a re-release of the 15-CD recording of all Beethoven’s piano works laid down in the late 1970s and a new recording of the complete Sonatas. This long gap permits interesting comparisons – some of the recordings reflect his striking consistency across the years – but it has also allowed Buchbinder to rethink his approach to Beethoven. Having performed 40 cycles of these works, his approach has become less rather than more predictable. Moreover, he regards his early recordings, which were made in the studio, as less ‘alive’ than they should have been: this new set is recorded in the presence of live audiences, regardless of the occasional cough or rustle. He has amassed two dozen printed editions of the works; shocked by editing errors even in so-called Urtext scores, he has opted for an edition by Liszt.
I started with some of the old recordings of the early Sonatas, which are both intriguing and irritating. His touch is crisp, clean and devoid of mannerisms, with minimal use of the sustaining pedal; it all makes for appealing playing. But he also shows an impatience with the movements that don’t yield up their secrets immediately: he rushes through the Allegro of Op. 14 No. 1, betraying no sense of its understated poetry, and there is a lack of tenderness in the Allegretto.
If you make before-and-after comparisons, certain patterns emerge. Time and familiarity have brought greater expansiveness to his playing and his trademark rubatos, often so infinitesimal that one senses, rather than becomes consciously aware of them, are now employed with wonderful delicacy. This is particularly true of the march of Op. 101; indeed that whole Sonata comes across with definitive grace, as the musing first movement ushers in a sequence of modes and moods which is at length exquisitely resolved. The new Waldstein is at once oracular and masterly, while the new Hammerklavier maintains a balance between emotional restraint and furious abandon. And I have never heard the conclusion of Op. 110 sound so convincingly ‘right’ as it does here. Together the Bagatelles and occasional pieces make the old set well worth acquiring, but the new version – though you might quarrel with specific interpretations – deserves a place among the great Beethoven recordings of all time.