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.