Claudio Arrau was past his prime when, in the mid-1980s, he offered these final thoughts on the late sonatas, but he was still a sovereign interpreter, with a sense of line and grasp of form few other exponents of this music have possessed in comparable degree. Where an interpreter like Pollini emphasizes the energy in Beethoven’s writing for the piano, Arrau conveys its mass, giving these sonatas a symphonic treatment.
“Emil Gilels stands out as giant among giants,” wrote Gramophone when the Odessa-born pianist died in 1985. “In terms of virtuosity he was second to none, yet his leonine power was tempered by a delicacy and poetry that few have matched and none has surpassed.” Beethoven was at the heart of Gilels’ repertoire and in 1968 he recorded this complete cycle of the composer’s piano concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra and its long-standing maestro, another musical titan of the era, George Szell.
Perahia’s immaculate technique, stylistic surety, and classical symmetry are remarkably consistent. While his tone is always singing and rounded, lyrical melodies and decorative passages alike convey a slight diamond-like edge to the peak of crescendos or an emphatic accent. This helps achieve an attractive fusion of unruffled poise and dramatic tension. You hear this quite readily in the B-flat K. 456 concerto ‘s first movement, or in the carefully pedaled trills and restatement of the main theme in K. 595’s heavenly Larghetto, also sampled here. Perahia’s symbiotic musical rapport with Radu Lupu in the two-piano concerto and the two-piano version of the concerto for three pianos should not go unmentioned.– Jed Distler
Now many of the world’s most serious and significant pianists (Schnabel, Serkin, Brendel, Goode, etc.) have devoted a great deal of thoughtful study to the Beethoven sonatas; in general, performance of this music represents a level of erudition and deep contemplation probably unequaled by the works of any other mainstream composer. Serious pianists study every aspect of these works in minute detail; virtually everything is taken into account except those instruments which inspired Beethoven, and which he had in mind when he composed.
Recorded live in 1983, Alfred Brendel's third go-round with these works drastically improves on his previous Beethoven concerto cycles. He finds a calmer, more direct route to the Emperor Concerto, although the Fourth's first movement is still pock-marked with finicky phrase adjustments that pull focus from the music's poetic arcs. Levine provides sympathetic and alert support, yet is much more than a mere deferential accompanist.
The lean sound of the small ensemble enables you to clearly hear countless details that are obscured on even the best modern orchestra recordings. Steven Lubin's performances, and the different instruments he uses, are carefully attuned to the qualities of each individual concerto. His performances are triumphs of insight and expressiveness, and Hogwood makes sure the orchestra stays with him in every detail. My only major complaint about this set is that the wasted space on the third disc, which contains only the Emperor Concerto, should have been used for more Beethoven.