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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable restoration of a remarkable series and deserving of unstinting praise, 29 Jan 2013
By 
I. Giles (Argyll, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sonatas Recorded In Vienna 1983-84) (Daniel Barenboim) (Euroarts: 2066424) [Blu-ray] [2012] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
In view of the severe criticisms of the first DVD disc, and implicitly of the series, by a previous reviewer, it is essential to understand Barenboim's precise intentions as regards making this particular set of recordings. Unfortunately these are only included in the Blu-ray version of the discs

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The recording intentions as explained by Barenboim and the recording quality:

Readers should be aware that this review is based on this 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 who has consequently based his review on the wrong assumptions.

In his interview 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 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, and certainly not a cause for concern.

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The music and its delivery:

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.

Beethoven's writing is generally agreed to fall into three periods. The first period being considered `decorative' and following the 18th century model ending with sonata 11; the last period having highly complex structures, emotionally demanding and introspective commencing with sonata 27; the middle period sonatas of 12-26 being the transitional period. The series allows us to follow this development very easily and Barenboim adjusts his playing to enable this to be followed clearly. As such this is a considerable achievement.

The slow movement of the ground-breaking 4th sonata is a clear move away from the Haydn model with the sonata's 30 minute total duration making this Beethoven's longest sonata until the far later Hammerklavier. Barenboim's performance gives it due gravitas without quite leaving the Classical period in which it is rooted. The seventh sonata brings further emphasis on emotional density of thought as evidenced by the extensive slow largo movement stretching to a full eleven minutes.

Other structural changes rapidly develop as we approach and progress through Beethoven's middle period. This is evidenced in the concluding scherzo of the tenth sonata, the opening slow movements of sonatas 12-14, the biting scherzo of sonata 12 which also includes a sombre funeral march later played at Beethoven's own funeral and the three-sectioned opening movement of the sonata 13 (andante-allegro-andante). 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 throughout this middle period clearly apparent in sonatas 16, 17, 21 and 23 especially but not exclusively. The final set of six sonatas from sonata 27 further develop complex counterpoint, variation form and harmonic relationships and together constitute Beethoven's final period.

These combined are all important structural changes which finally break the mould of the 18th century piano sonata.

Barenboim keeps all of these in context with his lighter and fleeter approach in this set compared to his Berlin set whilst still exploring the greater structural depths as they develop. It is generally agreed that Beethoven bids his farewell to the Classical period with the eleventh sonata, conveniently placed at the end of disc 1, as he leads the way towards the following Romantic period fully achieved in his last six sonatas to be found on disc three.

Barenboim's 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, to be heard in Berlin. The dynamic range of his touch is widened as the series progresses with the gentler moments becoming almost whisper-like and with the bigger moments becoming more powerfully delivered. In general terms the over-riding emphasis throughout this series is upon clarity and incisiveness of touch to achieve dramatic effect rather than weight and this is entirely appropriate to the Classical and early Romantic periods. It is also a major difference compared to the Berlin performances which offer a far heavier and weightier concept which is further emphasised by a fuller recorded tonal quality.

The filmed interpretation that Barenboim was seeking in order to draw out the structure can be 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. The first movement of sonata 8 receives much the same treatment. Sonata 9 is filmed in a windowless room which imparts a warmer colour palette. Sonata 12's funeral march is set in appropriately subdued conditions revealed at very slow speed with an extended view of one dark area of the room to match. Brighter movements are naturally set in brighter conditions. Sonata 16 is also initially filmed in very subdued lighting with highlights, rather like a painting of a Dutch indoor scene. As the sonata progresses so the lighting broadens and increases.

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 as they are now perceived. The later 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.

The final series of sonatas is filmed in a large room dominated by substantial marble pillars and monumental in character. The area is kept brightly lit. Barenboim is able to unravel and clarify the complexities of these final sonatas remarkably well and the visual analogy seems appropriate given the intention and the available facilities.

These limited 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 although perhaps I should mention, before someone complains that I haven't noticed, that the statement before every single sonata that it was dedicated to Haydn is not the case and is clearly an unfortunate editing slip. Only the first three sonatas of opus 2 were, in fact, actually dedicated to Haydn.

In conclusion, 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 for anyone contemplating the purchase of a complete set of the sonatas. It certainly offers a very different filming concept and set of interpretations compared to Barenboim's later Berlin set recorded at a series of `live' concerts and out of chronological order.

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Some dialogue from the comments section that may offer further help:

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)

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Triumph, 2 Dec 2012
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This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sonatas Recorded In Vienna 1983-84) (Daniel Barenboim) (Euroarts: 2066424) [Blu-ray] [2012] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
I own a fair few Beethoven Sonata cycles, including Barenboim's other video cycle for EMI in 2005. That was good. This is absolutely excellent. The tempos are much more considered, the delicacy over the keyboard reaches an extremely high level, and the sound of the Steinway is, as always, wonderful.

As for the filming, this is where this collection, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, really shines over the Andy Sommer directed EMI cycle. The camera angles are well chosen, the grand rooms in which the cycle is filmed are lovely to look at, and the piano is positioned creatively for the camera (we have an early camera angle watching through a mirror.)

The HD remastering is very well done, the only part where the picture falls down is the 1st movement of he Appassionata, but this is explained in the booklet notes. The sound is beautifully clear and rich at all times.

Musically, Barenboim is in the 3rd of 4 sonata cycles here, and for me, this is his best, from the lovely, flowing adagio cantabile of the Pathetique, to the tower of power that is the Hammerklavier, he handles all with aplomb.

Overall, a collection I absolutely love, well worth the money, and I shall be enjoying it time and time again!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Only if you fancy staring at Barenboim's face, the piano case or the walls and don't mind the cropping, 20 Jun 2013
By 
T. Wei "Cantabrigian" (planet earth) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sonatas Recorded In Vienna 1983-84) (Daniel Barenboim) (Euroarts: 2066424) [Blu-ray] [2012] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
Overall: 3.5 Performance: 4.5-5/5 Picture: 2.5/5 Sound: 4.5/5

Few would dispute that Barenboim is a leading exponent of Beethoven. Having listened to his later sonata cycles (the first on EMI is on its way) I put his Beethoven overall somewhere middle of the road. That is actually a compliment. His whole conception, pacing and rhetoric fall naturally into place. That is not to say he has the last word: I have many sets which I return to for individual sonatas.

Alas, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this Blu-ray re-issue of old laser discs. The technical issues are:

1. The picture has been cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, thereby losing a quarter of the total (split between the top and bottom, not necessarily equally). It is not the director's intention. A lot of times the piano and performer are in the bottom half of the frame and the legs of the piano, and/or part of the keyboard are cut off. The pianist is now much closer. The whole framing composition and perspective are destroyed. I can use my video processor to unzoom it back to fit a 4:3 frame (like non-anamorphic widescreen DVDs) and it looks so right all of a sudden. If you don't know that many viewers hate cropping, read the the reviews and comments in other Blu-rays that suffer the same fate (Thunderbirds and The World at War) on Amazon and elsewhere. EuroArts seem to have fallen into a habit of doing this for a few titles now and they don't get the message as long as they get 5* votes.

2. The video has been frame-converted from 25 frames per second to 23.98. Sometimes in the fast passages (not many of these) there is breaking up or jerkiness of movement. This would be expected in the original frame rate but it could be made worse by frame conversion.

3. There seems to be more audio-video out of sync than usual compared to other Blu-rays. This may be partly equipment dependent and usually correctable. The stereo PCM track itself is fine.

4. Every sonata's opening credit says it is dedicated to Haydn: this is only true for the first three Op. 2! Obviously they recycled the same credits for the whole set and it indicates lack of attention to details (I don't know if this originates from the laser discs).

Then there is the photography. A lot of times the camera focuses on Barenboim's face at close range (occupying nearly half the screen) for prolonged periods, so much I can remember his facial details. Other times the camera stares at the end of the piano or the walls. There are complete movements (like the first in the Pathétique) where the hands and the keyboard are not shown at all. In that movement, the camera zooms in slowly towards the end of the piano and zooms out and that's it. What does that convey? It is especially infuriating when I specifically want to watch how he plays a particular passage and I am denied the opportunity. I gain nothing watching his face or the walls and I dozed off on occasions when this happened. It's not how I like to watch a filmed recital.

In the short interview, Barenboim said he wanted the director to film it so the breaks occur at suitable transitions in the music but in reality this isn't adhered to. If you already have the DG CD set from around the same time (they do not seem to be identical takes but should be close enough) then don't bother. If you don't and wish to try Barenboim then buy the CDs (any cycle, all at budget prices), the Blu-ray isn't worth having as a first encounter. If you need to watch him play then get the EMI DVDs from the 2000s: despite the constant camera changes you see a lot more of the action and no cropping.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I have nothing but praise for this set, 3 Jan 2013
By 
Mr. John Crompton (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sonatas Recorded In Vienna 1983-84) (Daniel Barenboim) (Euroarts: 2066424) [Blu-ray] [2012] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
I cannot find a single negative thing to say about this set on artistic grounds (ok, one can wish that it was a little less expensive but then again there has clearly been a lot of work done to restore the original film to the fantastic feast for the eye and ear.)
Just one point to to add to the other positive comments from other reviews. The filming was done at a time when it was appreciated that the sort of people who would be interested in Beethoven sonatas would have an attention span of more than five seconds. Therefore whilst the visual image does alter the change is never too rapid and never gimmicky. In fact, it seemed to be remarkably like my own attention span if I had been there myself. After several minutes of seeing the pianist's face or hands it is only right that one's attention should temporaily switch the the splendid settings in which the sonatas were performed. It is probably the case that 99% of the people who buy the bluray will never get to attend a performance in any of these venues given by such a pre eminent artist and the director has done us a great service by allowing us to see the rooms lit so well so we can see lots of detail but at the same time recognising that it is the music being performed that we have paid for.

The brochure has a brief but very useful description of the works which is understandable to a non pianist such as myself. I was wondering if any readers could recommend a book which explores the works in more detail but which does not include too many musical examples as I cannot read music.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but I prefer the live set from Berlin, 1 Sep 2013
By 
Kirk McElhearn (Near Stratford-upon-Avon) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sonatas Recorded In Vienna 1983-84) (Daniel Barenboim) (Euroarts: 2066424) [Blu-ray] [2012] [Region Free] (Blu-ray)
This set was recorded in 1983 and 1984 in four different "palaces" and castles, showing Barenboim at what one might call his middle period. His first recording of the Beethoven sonatas on disc, in his mid-twenties, bore the impetuousness of youth. His later interpretations, such as the mid-1980s cycle for DG, show wisdom acquired through experience. These films are from that period, and catch Barenboim at a stage where he had been playing these works for decades. His performances here are polished and refined, though lacking the sparkle of the 2005 live recordings. Barenboim is generally expressionless as he performs, and, while he gets a bit animated at times, his face betrays very little.

The filming is unadventurous. Edits are conservative, there are lots of long shots, and not many showing Barenboim's dazzling finger-work. There is much attention to the surroundings; the buildings are merely the setting for the music, however, and shouldn't be more than that. There are some very long static shots, which are very different from today's MTV-influenced videos.

This leads me back to the original question: what does one expect from a film like this? It's got great music - more than 11 hours of it -, an excellent performer, and is a visual record of that performer in his element. But he's really in a studio - albeit a grandiose one - without the spontaneity of the stage, and in many ways it's similar to a film of someone in a recording studio. No one will watch 11+ hours of Beethoven, or even the 200 minutes or more on each disc (Blu-Ray), in a single sitting. Unlike CDs, which have the convenient length of about an hour, optical discs require more of a time commitment. You can dip into them at any point to hear a favorite sonata but then you will end up not hearing them all.

Technically, this is another of EuroArts' Recorded Excellence releases, where the company has scanned old 35mm footage to bring it to today's audiences. The restoration is as good as possible. Compared to something filmed in HD today, it's lacking; there's grain and blur, lighting issues and color saturation problems, but they don't distract from the performances. The images are judiciously cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, and you don't really notice the difference. (I have the Blu-Ray version of this set; it is also available on DVD.)

In the end, if you're a fan of Beethoven's piano sonatas, and especially of Daniel Barenboim's performances, you'll want to own this, as there aren't many complete sets on film. I prefer the live recitals because they are more spontaneous, and because each one is a programmatic selection of three or four sonatas, rather than them being in number order. If you're not familiar with Barenboim's recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas, I strongly recommend you give these a listen - on film or CD. This is a fine document of one of the best performers of Beethoven on piano. In a field with a lot of competition, I find his recordings to be among my favorites. Maybe you will too.
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