I first became interested in the pianism of Friedrich Gulda when I picked up a disc of Mozart concertos with him, Abbado, and the Vienna Philharmonic (in nos. 20 and 21 [which are still available]). It never crossed my mind that this Mozart disc, which I snagged as a cheap impulse buy, would immediately rival and eventually surpass the Perahia recordings of those two concertos (which just happened to be my favorite at the time). What struck me most about Gulda's technique was the crispness and overall clarity of his playing. What's best is that he achieved this clarity without the slightest hint of dryness; from that moment on, I became a devoted Gulda fan.
Here we have what I believe to be the summit of Gulda's recorded legacy: his first epic traversal of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. He made two, with the second being, I believe, the lesser of the two giants. More staccato, very speedy playing, and less warmth is how I would characterize his later recording (but with better sonics) - it's still a great set, just not quite as great as the one we have here.
Interpretation-wise, Gulda is far from the Post-war Germanic style of plodding, ponderous tempos. Quick, crisp playing is the norm here, and it is a nice contrast to Arrau and Barenboim's (EMI) classic sets. Gulda really shines in the early sonatas, especially in the slow movements (and even more specifically, in the slow movements of op. 7 and op. 10 [nos. 2 and 3], which are truly heart wrenching). His interpretations of the early masterpieces have a Mozartian tautness to them, while still implementing ample legato phrasing when called for. I feel safe to say that few would be disappointed with Gulda's way here.
As for the middle sonatas, some may find a little more to gripe about, but not much. His interpretations are still outstanding in my own opinion, but some may feel they lack the same perfection that Gulda achieves in the early and late sonatas. The first movement of the "Moonlight" is.....well, interesting. Slow, very slow (on par with Solomon), and Gulda tends to blend and overlap all the modulating harmonies throughout (almost as if his foot was cemented to the pedal for the entire first movement). I believe it to be a welcomed change from the standard. The "Waldstein" will be a bit on the fast side for some listeners (indeed, it may be the fastest I have ever heard - in all three movements); however, his way with the "Pastorale" and "Tempest" is nothing short of spectacular. Particularly noteworthy are Op. 78 and 79, which I believe get definitive performances.
When I reached the late sonatas (starting with op. 90) on this 11 disc set, I was truly in awe. Gulda certainly gave my previous reference recordings (Pollini, Arrau, Solomon, and Rosen) a good run for their money. The only weak-link here is the "Hammerklavier", which is a much earlier recording (1951- and it sounds every bit its age). Gulda just does not seem to be in the same mindset as he was with the others. Sharp, disjointed, and overall choppy playing is how I would characterize it (although he does have some fantastic things to say in the slow movement and final fugue). Never-mind though, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise stunning set. The final three sonatas get near definitive readings, and in op. 111 Gulda is rivaled only by Solomon (and even then, he is not surpassed). You also get what I like to call two "bonus" discs containing the C major piano concerto, two violin sonatas, the "Eroica" variations, and two Bagatelles. These are all early recordings, and the sound is dated, but the music-making is still first rate (particularly in the two violin sonatas).
As far as the sound goes overall, it's not bad. There are 14 sonatas in mono - (op. 2 [1,2,3]/ op. 7/ op. 10 [1,2,3]/ op. 13/ op. 14 [1,2] / op. 49 [1,2]/ op. 81/ and op.106), the rest are in early stereo (all the "bonus" material is mono). Overall the sound is pretty good, with the late mono recordings (1954, '55, '57, '58) being just as good, if not better than the early stereo recordings. There is still a good deal of surface "hiss" present in the early stereo takes, which I believe Decca could have done a better job at reducing. Nevertheless, the sound is more then adequate for these timeless recordings.
So overall, this is a truly distinctive set of the immortal 32 by one of the great Beethoven interpreters of the twentieth century. The price tag is outstanding, and the music-making is priceless. It's certainly a welcomed addition to the "Original Masters" series, and more importantly, a more then justified addition to any Beethoven shelf.