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DVD Review: Barenboim on Beethoven

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Daniel Barenboim owns Beethoven! Watching this set of DVDs and listening to his magnificent performances shows why Barenboim is clearly the pre-eminent performer of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. While many will disagree – after all, there are countless recordings by dozens of performers – what comes through after seeing these recitals is the deep familiarity that Barenboim has with the music. Playing these sonatas for some fifty years, they have become a part of him, and this shows in the way he performs these works with such conviction. (And without scores, which, alas, too many performers depend on.)

This set contains films of a series of eight recitals that Barenboim performed in Berlin in 2005, comprising all 32 of the sonatas. Each recital lasts from an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, and contains four sonatas, a mixture of early, middle and late works. The programs themselves work well, but any selection of sonatas played by Barenboim would be fine. The camera work is among the best I’ve seen for this type of performance; there are enough different camera angles to keep it from being repetitive, and the intensity of watching Barenboim perform is enough to trump the limits of filming. The sound is in PCM stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1; the surround mix is excellent.

Barenboim has already recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas twice: once for EMI when he was in his late twenties, and a second time for DG in the 1980s. One could say that these live recitals are closer to the second recording; slow tempi, much rubato, a great intensity and an often meditative approach to the music. Barenboim shines in the late sonatas, and at the end of the op. 111 sonata (no. 32), his intensity is such that he has to wipe tears from his eyes. But the early Haydnesque/Mozartian sonatas are also wonderful, with a full range of youthful passion.

In addition to the eight recitals, this set contains two DVDs of master classes, where Barenboim shares his knowledge and experience with six young pianists. While much of the discussion is quite technical, even non-musicians will find some of the comments illuminating, providing insights into music in general and these sonatas in particular.

This set is perhaps my best musical purchase in years. I plan to watch these recitals many times, and have gotten many insights into the music – some of the best for piano – simply by watching it performed.

Update: This set is now available on CD, but in sonata order, 1-32, rather than grouped by recital as on the DVDs.

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CD Review: Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on Fortepiano, by Andreas Staier

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I have several recordings of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and while it is a work I have long appreciated, it wasn’t until I heard this recent disc from Andreas Staier that I really started “getting it.” It’s the most infectiously joyous recording I have of the Diabellis. At times, Staier’s performance makes me almost want to get up and dance. Don’t forget, these are variations on a waltz, though after the first, opening theme, the waltz rhythm itself is pretty much absent. But they are full of musical humor. As Alfred Brendel said in an essay Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?, “…Beethoven here shines as the ‘most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour’; he calls the variations ‘a satire on their theme’.” Staier, in the liner notes, calls this music “ironic” and “sarcastic.”

Another unique aspect of this recording is that it is recorded on a fortepiano, with delicious, rich sound, which brings back the music as Beethoven heard it (or would have, if his hearing were better). Finally, this disc includes not only Beethoven’s variations, but also a selection of variations from other composers. When Diabelli wished to publish a set of variations on his theme, he sent the theme to a number of composers, and while many were published, it was Beethoven who went to the extreme, creating 33 variations. This recording includes variations by Mozart, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel and others, along with Staier’s own “Introduction,” an improvisation on the theme. All of these “remixes” are at the beginning of the disc, so if you only want to hear Beethoven, you can start listening at track 13.

As I said above, Staier’s performance here is lively, aggressive, and full of joy. It is a delight to hear him play this work, and especially on this attractive copy of a Graf fortepiano. The recording is excellent; the fortepiano is very prominent and full-bodied, and there is no excess of reverb to drown its subtle sounds.

(It’s worth noting that Staier recorded this work based on the autograph manuscript (which you can see here). According to the liner notes, this manuscript had been “inaccessible” up until 2009.)

It seems that there is only one other fortepiano recording of this work by Jörg Demus (reissued by DG in August, 2012). It is odd that there are not more recordings of this great work, even on modern piano. (I assume that Ronald Brautigam will be releasing a recording of this as part of his complete Beethoven survey on fortepiano.) While most of the major pianists have recorded it – I especially like Alfred Brendel’s recordings – it doesn’t have the popularity of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Yet it remains one of the greatest works of variations for piano, and Staier’s recording should help it get a bit more exposure.

If you’re not familiar with this work, Andreas Staier’s fortepiano recording is a great way to discover it. And if you do know the work, but on modern piano, it’s wonderful to hear it on an original instrument. Either way, this is a great recording of a great work, and one that any lover of Beethoven’s piano works should get.

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Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven for All: the Symphonies

Decca has released the first in a series of collections of Beethoven’s major works by Daniel Barenboim. With three groups of works planned between now and the end of the year – the symphonies, the 32 piano sonatas, and the 5 piano concertos – this is a major project to provide new recordings of the heart of Beethoven’s output. (Though I would argue that the string quartets are just as important.) Barenboim records the symphonies and piano concertos with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra that Barenboim created 13 years ago, consisting of musicians from various countries of the Middle East.

Available on Amazon.com for $28 on CD, but only $10 by download, the symphonies have been released this week. (The piano concertos will be released in August, with Barenboim leading the Staatskapelle Berlin from the keyboard, and the piano sonatas in October.) Interestingly, the download price point matches that of the recent set of HJ Lim’s Beethoven piano sonatas, though the CD price of that set is a more “normal” price, currently $96 for 8 CDs. With the Barenboim set, Decca seems to be targeting two demographics: classical music fans who might just buy “one more” set of Beethoven symphonies at a low price on CD, and non-classical listeners who might see this new set of symphonies for only $10 by download, and want to “try out” some classical music. (It’s worth noting that the set is $13 on the iTunes Store.)

I very much like Barenboim’s Beethoven, at least the piano sonatas; for those works, Barenboim is one of my favorite artists, and his DVD set recorded in 2005 (see the previous link) is a delight to watch and listen to. I’m less a fan of Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’m not really interested in this symphony set, though a cursory listen of the 90-second samples on the iTunes Store suggests that it is solid and well recorded.

To learn more about this set, you can check out a free 56-minute documentary available from the iTunes Store.

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