DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Daniel Barenboim Plays the Complete Beethoven Sonatas

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Classical DVDs and Blu-Rays come in several varieties. There are the filmed concerts, now commonplace, which are created to provide content to the few “arts” TV channels around the world, then sold on disc to music fans. Some of these are operas, and some are just films of orchestras, ensembles or soloists performing in concert halls. There are also the, now less common, films of artists playing in grand rooms and halls in chateaus or other stately buildings.

What do we really expect from them? They can’t replace the concert experience, no matter how good your DVD/Blu-Ray player and audio system. At best, just like CDs, they provide a record of a performance, but in a way that documents a specific artist’s expressions and emotions. Many of them are simply films of concerts, with little advantage over audio-only versions. Operas are an exception, since there’s the staging and the costumes, and, in some cases, inventive camera-work that will get you much closer to the action than if you were in the audience – just as theatre broadcast to cinemas gives you a totally different view of a play than you would see from the cheap seats, or even the front row.

I’ve seen a lot of DVDs and Blu-Rays, and I’ve been riveted by some, bored by others, and greatly surprised by a handful. I very much like the medium, because they let me approach music differently. However, there are only a handful of optical discs that I’ve watched more than a couple of times. A classical DVD or Blu-Ray needs to have something special to stay on the top of my pile.

There’s an intensely visual performance of Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call time which is entrancing and creatively staged. There’s a film of Purcell’s Fairy Queen which I spin every now and then. And there’s this luminous set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas performed by Daniel Barenboim in a series of recitals in Berlin in 2005. (The latter is also available on CD from Decca, as part of Barenboim’s recent “Beethoven for All” series.)

The latter are probably the films that I watch the most. Not only do I appreciate the subtly inventive camera work, but the performances are excellent. Each program – there are eight in all – provides a selection of the sonatas. Watching these films helped me gain a much deeper understanding of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and a better appreciation of Barenboim as an interpreter of them.

So, when I heard that EuroArts was releasing a “new” set of Daniel Barenboim performing these works, I was very excited. These were recorded in 1983 and 1984 in four different “palaces” and castles, showing Barenboim at what one might call his middle period. His first recording of the Beethoven sonatas on disc, in his mid-twenties, bore the impetuousness of youth. His later interpretations, such as the mid-1980s cycle for DG, show wisdom acquired through experience. These films are from that period, and catch Barenboim at a stage where he had been playing these works for decades. His performances here are polished and refined, though lacking the sparkle of the 2005 live recordings. Barenboim is generally expressionless as he performs, and, while he gets a bit animated at times, his face betrays very little.

The filming is unadventurous. Edits are conservative, there are lots of long shots, and not many showing Barenboim’s dazzling finger-work. There is much attention to the surroundings; the buildings are merely the setting for the music, however, and shouldn’t be more than that. There are some very long static shots, which are very different from today’s MTV-influenced videos.

This leads me back to the original question: what does one expect from a film like this? It’s got great music – more than 11 hours of it -, an excellent performer, and is a visual record of that performer in his element. But he’s really in a studio – albeit a grandiose one – without the spontaneity of the stage, and in many ways it’s similar to a film of someone in a recording studio. No one will watch 11+ hours of Beethoven, or even the 200 minutes or more on each disc (Blu-Ray), in a single sitting. Unlike CDs, which have the convenient length of about an hour, optical discs require more of a time commitment. You can dip into them at any point to hear a favorite sonata but then you will end up not hearing them all.

Technically, this is another of EuroArts’ Recorded Excellence releases, where the company has scanned old 35mm footage to bring it to today’s audiences. The restoration is as good as possible. Compared to something filmed in HD today, it’s lacking; there’s grain and blur, lighting issues and color saturation problems, but they don’t distract from the performances. The images are judiciously cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, and you don’t really notice the difference. (I have the Blu-Ray version of this set; it is also available on DVD.)

In the end, if you’re a fan of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and especially of Daniel Barenboim’s performances, you’ll want to own this, as there aren’t many complete sets on film. I prefer the live recitals because they are more spontaneous, and because each one is a programmatic selection of three or four sonatas, rather than them being in number order. If you’re not familiar with Barenboim’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, I strongly recommend you give these a listen – on film or CD. This is a fine document of one of the best performers of Beethoven on piano. In a field with a lot of competition, I find his recordings to be among my favorites. Maybe you will too.

This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.

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2 replies
  1. Bruce says:

    Thanks for that review, Kirk. Can’t imagine purchasing it as I’m probably not going to sit and watch 100 hrs of Barenboim, but while he surely is one of the greatest musicians of the past 100 years, I find his Beethoven idiosyncratic. He stretches and bends tempi and expressive elements too much for my taste. I way prefer Brendel and Schnabel (old LPs).

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  2. shiveringgoat says:

    Superb! great post Kirk, I loved the Barenboim Beethoven videos when he was breaking down the sonatas in a masterclass. I have the DG and EMI cycle of his Beethoven sonata recordings, although my favourite cycle is the Richard Goode and a new one on a fortepiano by Ronald Brautigam, I’ve got some of these in 24bit they sound fantastic with good headphones. Pollini too was another (the DG 2 CD set of late sonatas) amazing.
    The best HD videos of classical music by far I have seen over the last few years are the Mahler symphonies conducted by Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the performances are incredible and the video is really well shot. The magic between Abbado and his hand picked orchestra is magical.
    I was really lucky to see them live when they came to the Proms 5 years ago (although they played Mahler 3, not my favourite but amazing experience) Cheers Kirk.

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