Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Complete Piano Sonatas
PERFORMER: Complete Piano Sonatas Daniel Barenboim (piano); plus Lang Lang, Alessio Bax, David Kadouch, Saleem Abboud Ashkar, Shai Wosner and Jonathan Biss
CATALOGUE NO: 368 9939 (NTSC system; LPCM stereo; 16:9 picture format)
At the end of this six DVD marathon, lasting about 17 hours, there is no question about one thing: Daniel Barenboim is a great teacher. The last two DVDs, of master-classes that he gave in Chicago in 2005, demonstrate that to magnificent effect. In them he has six highly gifted pianists, including Lang Lang, already famous, and Jonathan Biss, well on the way, and listens intently as each of them plays a movement of one of the sonatas. Few listeners will have many complaints about these performances, but Barenboim, in a remarkable display of encouragement combined with critique, gently takes them apart and, playing passages himself on a second piano, gradually convinces the pianists of the necessity of a whole range of adjustments, technical and interpretative. He doesn’t try to get them to imitate him, but to realise more fully the conception of the piece which he intuits that they have. It is a masterclass above all in teaching, and also a rebuke to easy listening; he really persuades the viewer as well as the player that every note counts, and the balance of every note in a chord, and so on. These long, exhausting sessions – slightly less than an hour per student – set a standard in concentration and seriousness.

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The first four discs, filmed in Berlin’s Staatsoper, has Barenboim performing the complete sonatas. He is not one of those pianists, such as Richter, Arrau, Kempff, Gould, whose recitals are added to by being watched. Largely expressionless, and with short podgy fingers, he is better heard than seen. Even then, I found that what he said about the sonatas was more illuminating, more moving, than his performances of them, which seem, often, too much to be further lessons. Spontaneity, which he rightly insists is crucial, after all the thinking has been done, is often lacking. Even in the early and most straightforward ones he seems to be intent on drawing our attention to this detail or that. And in the most difficult sonatas, such as the Hammerklavier, Op. 106, he takes some surprisingly leisurely tempos which suggest not only that he wants us to hear everything but that the horrible technical demands of the works are now slightly beyond his reach. There is more to be learnt here than enjoyed. Michael Tanner