To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 1970, High Fidelity magazine published a comprehensive survey, in book form, of the composer's recordings that were available at the time. Their distinguished piano critic, Harris Goldsmith, wrote the sections on the piano music and concertos, and his opinions and insights are still valuable today. Of the Arrau cycle of the 32 sonatas, Goldsmith wrote the following:
"Following Arrau through the sonatas was a stimulating, sometimes perplexing experience: stimulating because of the pianist's mastery and profound insight into the music; perplexing because although I am a confirmed adherent to an opposite musical polarity (e.g., the Schnabel/Toscanini axis) I kept finding myself fascinated and drawn into Arrau's interpretations in spite of myself. Granted, I look for metrical severity and Arrau's inflected phrasing is sometimes stretched to theoretical limits; I also gravitate toward fast tempos and headstrong brio, while Arrau's approach more often than not is leisurely and reasoned. But this is not the cliché-ridden self-indulgence of a typical stock-in-trade 'Romantic' pianist: there is vast scholarship and harmonic analysis behind Arrau's seeming arbitrariness and it always manages to clarify some aspect of the writing. The pianist is helped, of course, by a superbly finished technique and a fabulous tone - solid, velvety rich, full of glint and gleaming color. Chords are luscious and well balanced, his scales are even and caressing. Arrau takes care to reveal inner melodic lines; he is scrupulous about observing rests, and unlike so many players, always begins his appoggiaturas on (rather than before) the beat. He is, I might add, the only artist to observe every repeat (which one might consider a mixed blessing). These details are important, of course, but ought not cloud the real point of Arrau's music-making which provides a deeply expressive, subjective thesis about Beethoven's music." ("The Recordings of Beethoven as Viewed by the Critics of High Fidelity," 1971)
The "subjective thesis" observed by Goldsmith was expressed by Arrau himself in an illuminating essay that accompanied the Philips box set of the pianist's complete sonata cycle in 1971:
"Like all cultural heroes, Beethoven exemplifies in his creative output all the spiritual and psychic battles of the mythic hero - the hero who is given superhuman tasks to overcome and who after untold struggles (truly bloodied but undaunted) emerges the victor and, as in the case of the greatest creative giants (Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goethe) finally attains the highest state of self-realization and illumination. This is especially true of Beethoven, who struggled creatively possibly on a more titanic scale than even Michelangelo - in the sense that he wrought his works into shape with an inexhaustible inner sense and vision of perfection and completion. In the end he reached a mystical union with the godhead, as it were, and on a higher plane of transcendence than almost anyone else in the history of Western art." ("Thoughts on Beethoven and the Piano Sonatas")
This outlook limns Arrau's interpretations of the Beethoven sonatas. My own point of view after having lived with these recordings for over forty years is that Arrau's genius, diverse as it was given his masterful interpretations of Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, and Schumann, revealed itself most completely in the music of Beethoven, especially those works (and there were many) with which he fully identified. The supreme statements of Arrau's Beethoven can be heard in the Appassionata, Funeral March, Pastoral, Les Adieux, Waldstein, Moonlight and Tempest sonatas, as well as the five late sonatas (opp. 101, 106, 109, 110 and 111). He also turned in exceptional performances of opp. 2, no.3; 10, no. 3; 27, no. 1 (Sonata Quasi una Fantasia); 54; 78 and 90 as well as the Eroica and C Minor variations. In fact, his playing and insights are on such a consistently high level that out of the 32 sonatas, Arrau hardly registered a "miss."
Of the last five sonatas Arrau pondered "Where did all of that come from? [How did Beethoven] enter spheres of such transcendent meaning as were never encountered in music before or, in all truth, since? Who could foretell such a span of evolution which sees him create at the end what can only be called a metaphysical language of music...where trills become a trembling of the soul and arpeggios reach out into the infinite altogether.... In Op. 111...Beethoven reaches into cosmic spaces which open up into infinitude, into a state of mystical rapture which Goethe called 'der Fall nach oben' - the fall upward...."
Given this level of perception, it's no wonder that Arrau's readings of the triple opus numbered sonatas uniquely penetrate the inner dimension of this music. While not everyone approved of his approach to late Beethoven (Harris Goldsmith called some of the interpretations too rhetorical and "Furtwanglerish"), I think these documents reign supreme in the canon of Beethoven recordings.
After decades of listening to Beethoven including the cycles set down by Schnabel, Kempff, Brendel, Frank, and Backhaus among others, it is Arrau whose recordings are the most consistently insightful and compelling, not to mention the most technically polished. This reissue set on the Decca label deserves a place in every music library.
Addendum: For a perspective of Arrau at work, I highly recommend a recently issued 2-dvd set of the pianist's appearances at the 1970 and 1977 Beethovenfest in Bonn: Claudio Arrau: Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Between the two recitals Arrau plays eight Beethoven sonatas (op. 2, no. 3; op. 27 no. 1; op. 27, no. 2; op. 53; op. 57; op. 81a; op. 109; and op. 111). These are unforgettable documents that capture the pianist at his titanic best.
There have been a number of comments regarding the sonics on this set, so I thought I would add my own to the mix. The previous Philips box set, which was issued in 1998, offered 24 bit sound and I can't say that it was much of an improvement over the original cd set except for the elimination of intrusive electronic clicks that some mistakenly believed were Arrau's fingernails striking the keys (as it happens, his nails were trimmed to the nub). There's only so much that can be done with fifty year old source material and it wouldn't surprise me if maximum remediation had already been done by the engineers at Philips.
Having said that, with the exception of the above-mentioned electronic noise in the original cd box set which has been corrected, I've never found the sound picture to be "claustrophobic" or "boxy" - descriptions that have been repeated numerous times over the years. To the contrary, I think this set projects a good deal of Arrau's unique sound - the richness, the color, the organ-like fullness and warmth. The sound picture, however, is not completely consistent. First of all, Arrau began his cycle by recording sonatas nos. 11-15 in 1962, and these are the only ones I find to be sonically challenged. They sound thin and rather strained, but they're still way ahead of what EMI's engineers were producing for Arrau in 1960 (an example of which is Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Fantasy). Sixteen months later, he recorded the Pathetique, Waldstein and Hammerklavier sonatas and followed this with a batch of early sonatas (nos. 1-7) in 1964. The rest were recorded over various sessions in 1965 and 1966. The point of all this is that while I tend to listen to the sonatas in chronological order, they were not recorded that way; however, the sound, never less than acceptable, definitely improves along the way - even though it may seem variable if you listen chronologically.