In view of the severe criticisms of this disc, and implicitly of the series, by a previous reviewer, I feel that it is important to draw readers' attention to some major considerations and disparities concerning many of these matters and which require some clarification.
Barenboim's artistic intentions as explained in depth on the Blu-ray interview:
Readers should be aware that this review is based on the Blu-ray set which includes an interesting and relevant interview from 2012 by Barenboim and not so far available to DVD viewers such as the previous reviewer. In this Barenboim describes how he was approached to record these sonatas as a non-profit making venture by the film maker. This project was undertaken as a result of Barenboim being able to choose his musical director - someone whom he could trust to convey the STRUCTURE of the developing musical ideas visually but specifically NOT BY CONCENTRATING ON FINGER WORK. Given that the recording was to take place in various palace rooms and that the finger work was not to be the main focus, the only thing left to do would be to concentrate on the rooms, the objects in the rooms, camera angles and the use of lighting effects to somehow show the changes in structure as they developed. A tall order.
As a photographer by trade, I would comment that fast finger-work in the lighting circumstances of the venues would be beyond the technical capabilities of the film stock available at that time (1980-1983). This is evident when the fingers become a blur of movement. Furthermore, the only ways available to minimise this problem, would be to focus on the general view of the pianist playing as if a member of the audience, or to focus in tight with next to no depth of field - hence one hand at a time being markedly out of focus. Some historical perspective is required to understand this technical situation as well as an understanding of Barenboim's intent.
As regards the sound, I use transmission line speakers of some size and which reproduce sounds well below the range of a piano. If there was any booming in the sound it would be very apparent with these speakers. There is no booming sound apparent on these very revealing speakers.
In my opinion, the restoration of this film stock has been meticulously done and has achieved results that are close to remarkable. Both image and sound are very consistent given the use of four separate palace locations in Vienna with differing acoustics and lighting. The imaging is clear and well lit whenever there is sufficient ambient or artificial light, which is most of the time. The sound is considerably better than that given to Rubinstein's Chopin on the remastered CDs for example and that has never stopped listeners from appreciating Rubinstein's efforts. I would suggest that the same criteria of understanding needs to be applied to this historical series of discs too. I would describe the sound as being generally comparable with good CDs of the same period - early 1980s.
As regards Barenboim's playing, it is significantly lighter in touch and fleeter in concept compared to his more recent Berlin set. The finger-work is aurally very crisp and the style is noticeably more lyrical than in his later set and his use of the pedal is gentler without the accompanying thuds, also to be heard in Berlin. In general terms the emphasis is upon clarity and incisiveness of touch rather than weight and this is entirely appropriate to the period.
The biggest bonus though, is being able to listen to the series chronologically. This is a considerable difference to the way other sets have been compiled. Certainly we all can tell the differences between the three periods in Beethoven's life when grouped, one of each, on a disc. Here however, we can hear far more subtle changes almost movement by movement. In particular there is the extraordinary development of emotional thought within the slow movements which become increasingly more complex in structure as Barenboim wanted to show visually via the film. At the same time there is an increasing breakdown and replacement of the 18th century model of the piano sonata as Haydn would have known it.
This third DVD focuses on the middle period sonatas 14-21 where Beethoven continues to break with the compositional structures of the past. The 14th Sonata starts with an extensive slow movement, some sonatas have three movements and some have four. Sonatas 20 and 21 are now thought to have been written in 1796 which places them alongside the earliest sonatas. This does not seem surprising given their obvious lack of complexity. There is a steady increase of dramatic tension and dynamic extremes clearly apparent in sonatas 16, 17 and 21 especially.
Barenboim keeps these developments in context with feather-light playing still harking back to the 18th century but now increasing the weight and power of his playing to bring out the additional drama inherent in the music. This continues to prepare the listener for what is yet to come in Beethoven's final and most introspectively and emotionally complex period. However, Barenboim's generally lighter and fleeter approach compared to his Berlin set is all to the advantage of delivering extra drama and excitement which still manages to keep one foot just about touching the previous compositional method.
The filmic interpretation that Barenboim was seeking in order to draw out the structure is illustrated, for example, by the prolonged view of the pianist seen at a distance through the space of the raised piano lid in sonata 14 for example. No finger-work, as the view imperceptibly closes in throughout the first movement of the sonata emphasising the calm simplicity of the movement. Sonatas 19 and 20 are filmed in a bare room with white and unadorned rooms and with bight lighting. This simplicity reflects the simplicity of these earlier works. The Waldstein sonata (21), on the other hand, is set in a highly ornamented room of considerable complexity. To emphasise the contrast of content in the middle movement, the room is plunged into virtual darkness with streaks of highlighting similar to high contrasted paintings of Dutch interiors. The last movement brings a return to lighting as the mood lifts. These observations are offered as examples of the director's attempts to match the structures of the music visually as requested by Barenboim.
This entire series is a fine effort in my opinion. Barenboim was at his performing peak and he had a musical director who attempted to convey something other than finger-work or facial expressions as Barenboim required. The recording was at the best level possible at the time and has been enhanced to the best level available today. It deserves our gratitude rather than our criticism.
I would suggest that these discs constitute a very major series which justifies the time, effort and cost of the work involved. Viewers just have to show a little understanding of the technical constraints and the concepts attempted. If they can then I would suggest that this may well be worth serious consideration. It offers a very different filming concept and set of interpretations compared to the later Berlin set recorded at a series of `live' concerts and out of chronological order.
Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:
Thank you very much for taking the time to detail these clarifications.
Daniel Léo Simpson
San Francisco (U.S. review)
I thought that you might like to know that before I buy a recording I now look through all the reviews to see if you have posted one. Your assessments and opinions are invaluable. Thank you. (US review)
I particularly like your format of review. They give the prospective purchaser an idea of the style of the playing and relevant comparisons. They are succinct. Keep up the good work! (UK review)
I'm sure there are many other serious collectors, besides myself, who wait for your synopsis and opinion before spending their hard-earned money on new releases...
Thank you (UK review)
I'd also add to this. When you in particular review a particular CD, I pay pretty close attention. I would say the characteristics of your reviews I value the most are the detail and general sense of balance and fairness that comes across. That's a great help. Thanks for taking the time on your reviews. (US review)