Vol. 3 in this EMI series of 4 incorporates the 5th and 6th of 8 concerts that Daniel Barenboim performed in 2005 before a live audience in the Staatsoper Berlin covering Beethoven’s total output of piano sonatas, 32 in all. They were not played in chronological order. Each concert occupies a single disc. Disc 1 of this Vol. opens with Sonata No 7 in D Major, Op 10 No 3. The 1st movement (Presto) is neither tuneful, complex or innovative, but the pianist plays it with commendable bravura, doing the best he can with the material. The 2nd, Largo, is frankly dull, and Barenboim prolongs the agony by dragging out its length ------- in my view---------- unnecessarily. The following Minuetto (Allegro) is also played much too slowly. The last, Rondo, is made up of contrasting passages ------- slow alternating with quick ------ and Barenboim is much more convincing in the latter. Altogether, this is the most forgettable performance of the series so far.
Next comes No 13 in E flat Major, Op 27 No 1. The 1st movement is a set of variations (Andante – Allegro) marked at different tempos. As is his habit, Barenboim transforms Andante to Molto Adagio, so that these variations tend to drag; while the Allegros fare much better and are dashed off with exhilarating exuberance. The 2nd, Allegro Molto e Vivace is performed ponderously and much too slowly at the beginning, but becomes playful and good humoured, growing in excitement to a thrilling climax. The 3rd ----- Adagio con Espressione ------- is played precisely as described: slowly, but not to the point of strangling the music that is allowed to flow smoothly and poetically. It is in such instances that Barenboim’s lack of haste brings out the spiritual depths of the musical material like no other keyboard artist. The final movement is sheer joy, and a fantastic feast of pianism in achieving the rhythmic and percussive effects demanded by the composer in this vibrantly quixotic movement, returning to the slow main theme of the 3rd movement before the conclusion.
No 27 in E Minor, Op 90 is an impressive work of only two movements, that is serious and uncompromising in the manner of the later sonatas and quartets, yet awesome in its purity, beauty and complex musical thought. Marked, respectively, Con Vivacita e Sentimento ed Espressione, and Non Troppo Vivo e Cantabile, the composer’s intentions are sufficiently ambiguous to justify Barenboim’s playing it according to his own wishes, that include a slower and more relaxed approach than his competitors, but this allows him to emphasize the “sentiment” and “expression” more than they do, resulting in a spiritually satisfying rendering that reveals more of the score’s profundity. It is 11 minutes of wonderful music-making. The Waldstein (No 21 in C Major, Op. 53), with which this concert concluded, is one of my favourite Beethoven piano works outside of the last 4 Sonatas. The opening Allegro con Brio is a brilliant piece of musical composition, and it received an appropriately brilliant performance. The 2nd, Adagio Molto, was played at Barenboim’s characteristically slow pace, but the music is sheer magic, and one could hardly blame the pianist for lingering over its beauty ----- profound and riveting. It leads seamlessly to the final Rondo ( Allegro Moderato). In fact, too seamlessly, in that Barenboim hardly upped the pace at all, and continued on with what was essentially at the same speed as the Adagio. But as the themes and their treatments recurred, the pace increased, and ultimately I was won over by his approach that turned the screw of tension more effectively than if the movement had been played faster from the outset. A performance to rival those of Rubinstein and Brendel, both of whom I heard play this live and in recordings.
The Pastorale, No 15 in D Major, Op 28 that opens Concert 6 is not one of my favourites. I have no idea how his publisher, seemingly without Beethoven’s authorization, came to name it such, as there is nothing “pastoral” about it. While the themes themselves are not particularly striking, what Beethoven does with them is, and the compositional details of the work offer much to admire, as does Barenboim’s performance. Once again, the slowest of which I am aware, he plods through the 1st movement Allegro, while following an appropriate Andante for the 2nd. But he manages to generate excitement with unexpected transitions that he executes with great bravura. His percussive left hand in the march-like Andante skillfully enhances its military character. He plays with the score like a cat with a mouse, and the last two movements are a sheer virtuoso delight. The best performance of the work I have heard in any medium.
Sonata No in 3 in C Major, Op 2 No 3, is a great leap forward from the first two sonatas. The long and melodic 1st movement is equal to the best of Mozart and Haydn, but in the subsequent 3 he leaves his distinguished predecessors behind with the trickery and inventiveness shown in the treatment of his musical material. Barenboim brings out all the joy and excitement of this youthful work, displaying how his profound insight manages to mine the beauty concealed by simplicity, and his fingers to refine and present it to an audience. Again, the best interpretation in my experience. No 24 in F sharp Major, Op 78, follows the Appassionata after a long interval, but it is idiomatically much more advanced. It sounds more like an experiment than a well-reflected piece of musical creativity, but is in no sense trivial. Barenboim treats it with dignified respect and gives a fine performance that can be said to elevate it above what Beethoven intended it to be.
Alas, things don’t go so well in the final Sonata of the concert: No 30 in E Major, Op 109. The first two movements, Vivace and Prestissimo are played with sufficient vigour, and in the slower transitions of the 1st movement to Adagio Espressivo, Barenboim delivers much as the composer intended, in line with many other fine interpretations of this work, but it is the last movement that separates the sheep from the goats, and here he is in the wrong flock. It is one of the half-dozen greatest movements in all 32 Sonatas: a set of variations on a very simple theme that grows in complexity, intensity, and an energy that is almost sexual. Marked Andante, Barenboim approached it with the speed of an Adagio, and the musical structure just fell apart. He did whip up a bit of frenzy and finished on a much higher note. But taken as a whole, the performance was nowhere near the peaks reached by Yves Nat, Schnabel, or Myra Hess. A big disappointment. Watching the camera focus on the face of the pianist and being able to observe his every expression, it was clear that every note was the subject of deep intellectual thought. This is one of the strongest features of his performing style, but sometimes, as here, he is too intellectual for his own good -------- or for Beethoven’s. Taking the two concerts together, I would rate this Vol. as 92 out of 100.