Beethoven: Piano Sonatas (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Sonatas (complete)
PERFORMER: Daniel Barenboim (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CZS 5 72912 2 ADD Reissue (1967-70
To compare Ian Hobson’s new set of the complete Beethoven sonatas with that recorded by Daniel Barenboim in the late Sixties is blatantly unfair: it is not comparing like with like. As the saying goes, the best is the enemy of the good and Barenboim’s 30-year-old set is, for me, among the best ever. My apologies to Hobson for what follows: one might be kinder to him if not listening to his recording back to back with Barenboim’s.

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There is not much exactly wrong with Hobson’s Beethoven. His tone is good, his phrasing musical. In the early sonatas he is pleasantly energetic and in the late ones restrained and thoughtful. The problem is more one of imaginative limitation. There are few extremes; the approach often borders on the metronomic and rarely rises above the correct. His performances will offend few, but stop well short of inspiring wonder. But the young Barenboim’s Beethoven shatters every horizon with incandescent energy. He bounds through the early sonatas with all the robust vigour of a young footballer. Over the most solid of foundations, his tempi are sometimes unusually relaxed. This allows the music to breathe – the Pastoral Sonata, Op. 28, positively basks in sunlight – and gives it space to make its often searingly profound point. Hobson, by comparison, can sound tense and self-conscious.

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Two points illustrate the difference well enough. In Op. 31/2, the D minor Tempest Sonata, the shower of rippling notes that adorns part of the slow movement serves in Barenboim’s hands as a casting of perspective that deepens the meditative inner stillness; Hobson just clatters through them. In the mighty variation in Op. 111 in which Beethoven discovered jazz, Hobson performs nicely and correctly everything that is on the page, but Barenboim throws himself into it with the elemental force of a thunderbolt. There is not much about Barenboim’s Beethoven that could be described as ‘nice’ – it is violent or tender, brusque or wise, visionary or tortured, without limiting horizons, and may offend some. But this, for me, is the true spirit of these sonatas. Jessica Duchen