Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Comparison Summary


2014-10-05 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-13 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2014-11-20 — Update (Igor Levit)
2015-05-27 — Update (op.110)
2015-07-25 — Update (op.81a, Scherbakov)
2015-08-20 — Last Update (Brautigam, complete sonata recording)
2016-07-27 — Brushed up for better readability
2017-09-18 — Added Mélodie Zhao


Posts About Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

In a series of blog entries (only just started!), I’m comparing the recordings of (the) Piano Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) in my music collection, tackling one sonata per blog posting:

  • No.1 in F minor, op.2/1 (tbd)
  • No.2 in A major, op.2/2 (tbd)
  • No.3 in C major, op.2/3 (tbd)
  • No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 (tbd)
  • No.5 in C minor, op.10/1 (tbd)
  • No.6 in F major, op.10/2 (tbd)
  • No.7 in D major, op.10/3 (tbd)
  • No.8 in C minor, op.13, “Pathétique” (tbd)
  • No.9 in E major, op.14/1 (tbd)
  • No.10 in G major, op.14/2 (tbd)
  • No.11 in B♭ major, op.22 (tbd)
  • No.12 in A♭ major, op.26 (tbd)
  • No.13 in E♭ major, op.27/1, “Quasi una fantasia” (tbd)
  • No.14 in C♯ minor, op.27/2, “Moonlight” (tbd)
  • No.15 in D major, op.28, “Pastoral” (2014-09-28)
  • No.16 in G major, op.31/1 (tbd)
  • No.17 in D minor, op.31/2, “The Storm” (tbd)
  • No.18 in E♭ major, op.31/3, “The Hunt” (tbd)
  • No.19 in G minor, op.49/1 (tbd)
  • No.20 in G major, op.49/2 (tbd)
  • No.21 in C major, op.53, “Waldstein” (tbd)
  • No.22 in F major, op.54 (2014-09-29)
  • No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata” (tbd)
  • No.24 in F♯ major, op.78, “À Thérèse” (tbd)
  • No.25 in G major, op.79 (tbd)
  • No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux” (2015-07-25, updated 2017-09-18)
  • No.27 in E minor, op.90 (tbd)
  • No.28 in A major, op.101 (tbd)
  • No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, “Hammerklavier” (tbd)
  • No.30 in E major, op.109 (tbd)
  • No.31 in A♭ major, op.110 (2015-05-27)
  • No.32 in C minor, op.111 (2014-10-04)

The Purpose of this Summary

In this note I would like to summarize the results of all of the above postings, this time focusing on artist rather than individual compositions; at the bottom of this posting you find a table that collects all of my ratings. Please keep in mind that a) these are just my personal ratings, and b) the criteria in comparing performances of music that has been composed 200 years ago can’t be entirely objective: the composer’s notation only provides a rough skeleton defining how the music was intended to sound; most artists don’t (or can’t) resort to period instruments — and even if we were really able to reproduce the original sound (which we can only approximate now), we cannot reproduce the human perception at the time of the composition, as our ears & brain are heavily biased by the music performed today!

The Artists in my Collection

For details on the actual CDs / recordings please select the appropriate blog postings from the list above; full CD details are typically given on the first sonata (sorted as shown above) for a given CD or CD set. The sections below are sorted by the name of the artist; the following pianists are featured here:

Some of these artists (and their associated recordings below) may only show up in upcoming reviews.


Wilhelm Backhaus

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Backhaus, CD cover

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  • 1952 – 1969: Decca 473 7198 (8 CDs, mono / stereo)
    Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 2.0 (partially done only)

Paul Badura-Skoda

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 1, Badura-Skoda, CD cover Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 2, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 3, Badura-Skoda, CD cover Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 4, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 5, Badura-Skoda, CD cover Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 6, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 7, Badura-Skoda, CD cover Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 8, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 9, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Instrument: Bösendorfer 290 Imperial

  • 1969 – 1970: Gramola 987 42/50 (9 CDs, stereo)
    CD#1: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.2/1-3
    CD#2: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.10/1-3
    CD#3: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.7, 13, 14/1, 14/2
    CD#4: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.22, 26, 27/1, 27/2
    CD#5: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.31/1-3
    CD#6: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.28, 49/1, 49/2, 53, 54
    CD#7: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.57, 78, 79, 81a
    CD#8: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.90, 101, 106
    CD#9: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.109, 110, 111
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 2.0 (partially done only)

Daniel Barenboim

Beethoven: Piano sonatas 1 - 15, Barenboim, CD cover Beethoven: Piano sonatas 16 - 32, Barenboim, CD cover

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  • 1984: DG 413 759-2 (6 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Nos.1 – 15
  • 1984: DG 413 766-2 (6 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Nos.16 – 32
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 2.0 (partially done only)

Ronald Brautigam

Beethoven: vol.1 - Piano sonatas opp.13, 14 & 22 — Brautigam, CD cover Beethoven: vol.2 - Piano sonatas opp.2/1-3, 49/1-2 — Brautigam, CD cover

Beethoven: vol.3 - Piano sonatas opp.2/1-3, 49/1, 49/2 — Brautigam, CD cover Beethoven: vol.4 - Piano sonatas opp.26, 27 & 28 — Brautigam, CD cover

Beethoven: vol.5 - Piano sonatas op.31/1-3 — Brautigam, CD cover Beethoven: vol.6 - Piano sonatas opp.53, 54, 57, 78, 79 — Brautigam; CD cover

Beethoven: vol.7 - Piano sonatas opp.81a, 90, 106 — Brautigam; CD cover Beethoven: vol.8 - Piano sonatas opp.101, 109-111 — Brautigam; CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas — Brautigam, CD cover

Fortepiano by Paul McNulty, 2001, after Walter & Sohn, 1802
Fortepiano by Paul McNulty, 2007, after Conrad Graf, ca.1819

  • 2003: BIS-SACD-1362 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.1 — Piano Sonatas opp.13, 14/1, 14/2, 22
  • 2004: BIS-SACD-1363 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.2 — Piano Sonatas opp.2/1-3, 49/1, 49/2
  • 2005: BIS-SACD-1472 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.3 — Piano Sonatas opp.7, 10/1-3
  • 2005: BIS-SACD-1473 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.4 — Piano Sonatas opp.26, 27/1, 27/2, 28
  • 2005: BIS-SACD-1572 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.5 — Piano Sonatas op.31/1-3
  • 2007: BIS-SACD-1573 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.6 — Piano Sonatas opp.53, 54, 57, 78, 79
  • 2007: BIS-SACD-1612 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.7 — Piano Sonatas opp.81a, 90, 106
  • 2008: BIS-SACD-1613 (SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: Vol.8 — Piano Sonatas opp.101, 109, 110, 111
  • 2014: BIS-SACD-2000 (9 SACD/CD)
    Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 4.9 (partially done only)

Edwin Fischer

Beethoven: Piano concerto No.5, Piano sonatas No.8 & 23, Edwin Fischer, CD cover

(with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Philharmonia Orchestra)

  • 1952: EMI Classics (CD, mono)
    Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5, Piano Sonatas opp.13, 57
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Emil Gilels

Beethoven: Piano sonatas, Gilels, CD cover

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  • 1972 – 1985: DG 00289 477 6360 (9 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
  • Average rating (4 tracks): 3.3 (partially done only)

Friedrich Gulda

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas & concerts, Gulda, CD cover

(with Horst Stein, Vienna Philharmonic)

  • 1976 – 1973: Universal 476 8761 (12 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas, The 5 Piano Concerts
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 3.9 (partially done only)

Clara Haskil

Beethoven: Piano sonatas opp.31/2, 31/3 — Haskil, CD cover

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  • 1960: DiscoverClassicalMusic (iTunes download)
    Beethoven: Piano sonatas opp.31/2, 31/3
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Jos van Immerseel

Beethoven: Piano sonatas opp.13 & 27/2, Bagatelles, Andante favori, van Immerseel, CD cover

Instrument: Fortepiano by Conrad Graf, 1824

  • 1983: Accent ACC 78332 (CD, stereo)
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.13, 27/2, 6 Bagatelles op.126, Andante favori WoO 57
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Julius Katchen

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Piano Sonata op.111 — Julius Katchen; CD cover

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  • 1968: Decca / iTunes download (stereo, 256 kbps)
    Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, op.120; Piano Sonata op.111
  • Average rating (2 tracks): 3.0 (op.111 only)

Wilhelm Kempff

Beethoven: Piano Concertos, Piano Sonata op.111 — Kempff, Leitner; CD cover

(with Ferdinand Leitner, Berliner Philharmoniker)

  • 1964: DG 427 237-2 (3 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: The 5 Piano Concertos, Piano Sonata op.111
  • Average rating (2 tracks): 1.5 (op.111 only)

Igor Levit

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.101, 106, 109-111 — Levit; CD cover

“spacer”

  • 2013: Sony classical 88883747352 (2 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (opp.101, 106, 109-111)
  • Average rating (0 tracks): 3.0 (partially done only)

Mikhail Pletnev

Beethoven: Piano sonatas opp.27/2, 53 & 57, Pletnev, CD cover

“spacer”

  • 1988: Virgin Classics 0946 363280 2 7 (CD, stereo)
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.27/2, 53, 57
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Maurizio Pollini

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.54, 57, 78, 90 — Pollini; CD cover Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.101, 106, 109-111 — Pollini; CD cover

“spacer”

  • 2003: DG 474 451-2 (2 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.54, 57, 78, 90
  • 1976: DG 449 740-2 (2 CDs, stereo)
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.101, 106, 109, 110, 111
  • Average rating (4 tracks): 3.8 (partially done only)

Svjatoslav Richter

Brahms: Piano Concert No.2 op.83; Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.57 — Richter, CD cover Beethoven: Diabelli Variations op.120, Piano Sonata op.110 — Richter, CD cover

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  • 1960: RCA Victor / BMG 07863-56518-2 (CD, stereo)
    Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2 op.83; Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.57
  • 1965: Harmonia mundi PR 254 023 CM 210 (CD, stereo)
    Beethoven: Diabelli Variations op.120, Piano Sonata op.110
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Arthur Rubinstein

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 11 - 14 Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 20

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 21 Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 53

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 65 Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 82

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 90 Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 125

Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 133 Rubinstein, The Complete Album Collection (142 CDs), cover, CD # 136 - 137

Arthur Rubinstein — The Complete Album Collection

  • SONY Classical 88691936912 (142 CDs / 2 DVDs, mono / stereo)
    CDs #11-14 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.81a (1940), 31/3 (mvt.3, 1945)
    CD#20 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.31/3, 57 (1945)
    CD#21 — Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.13 (1946)
    CD#53 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.13, 57 (1954)
    CD#65 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.31/3, 53 (1954)
    CD#82 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.13, 27/2, 81a (1962)
    CD#90 — Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.2/3, 57 (1963)
    CD#125 — Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.31/3 (1976)
    CD#133 — Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.31/3 (1976); Piano Concerto No.2 op.19
    CDs #136/137 — Beethoven: Piano Sonata op.57 (1975)
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

Konstantin Scherbakov

Beethoven: Eroica Variations op.35, Piano Sonatas opp.13 & 57 — Konstantin Scherbakov; CD Cover

“spacer”

  • 2015: TwoPianists Records TP1039190 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2015
    Beethoven: Piano Sonatas op.13, 57; “Eroica”-Variations op.35
  • Average rating (0 tracks): X.X (tbd)

András Schiff

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Piano Sonata op.111, Bagatelles op.126 — András Schiff; CD cover

Instrument: Bechstein, 1921

  • 2012: ECM New Series 2294/95 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2013
    Beethoven: Diabelli Variations op.120; Piano Sonata op.111; Bagatelles op.126
  • Average rating (2 tracks): 3.5 (op.111 only)

Artur Schnabel

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Schnabel, CD cover

“spacer”

  • 1932 – 1935: Regis / Forum FRC 6801 (8 CDs, mono)
    Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas
  • Average rating (8 tracks): 3.0 (partially done only)

Mélodie Zhao

Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas - Mélodie Zhao; CD cover

Instruments: Bösendorfer (Sonatas 1 – 9), Steinway D-274 (recorded at Studio Ernest Ansermet, RTS Geneva)

  • 2012 – 2013: claves records 50-1304-13 (10 CDs, stereo); © 2014
    Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas
  • Average rating (3 tracks): 3.0 (partially done only)

Summary Table

In the table below (I will expand this, whenever I’m adding new reviews), I’m summarizing the results of my iTunes ratings (*, **, **, ****, *****). Keep in mind that these ratings are subjective, though I have tried my best to avoid underrating specific recordings, e.g., by

  • listening to slower recordings first (after a fast recording, a slow interpretation may often sound “clumsy”);
  • revisiting recordings where I felt insecure in my judgement in the first pass;
  • later in the comparison, I sometimes would also listen to those recordings first which I anticipate to be worse than others. That’s not in order to confirm a prejudice, but because after a good one, a bad recording may sound even worse;
  • avoiding directly confronting “classic” recordings with newer, “historically informed” performances, or recordings with period instruments.

Note also that not all average ratings in the table below are directly comparable, as for some artists I only had a few sonatas to compare (some even just a single one!). There may not be any overlap between recordings of such artists.Beethoven, piano sonatas, summary, rating overview table

Legend

Keep in mind that the ratings are equivalent to the iTunes star ratings (* .. *****), with obvious limitations in differentiation. In general, I used the rating levels as follows:

  • ***** = top rating, my favorite recording(s)
  • **** = excellent recording
  • *** = good recording, often a typical “classic” recording
  • ** = with features / attributes that I dislike, or with “moderate deficiencies”
  • * = major objections, or recordings that are against the composer’s (perceived) intent, etc.

Despite the lack of rating differentiation, the above summary should (at least for artists represented by a complete collection of all sonatas) be relatively safe against occasional mis-ratings due to confrontation with the “wrong” contenders, due to variations in my own “receptivity” etc., thanks to the sheer number of the ratings which should average out occasional, minor mis-judgements. That said, there is of course no guarantee that anyone will agree with the above results…


Addendum:

For the non-pianists: I use pocket scores (typically Lea Pocket Scores or Kalmus) to follow this music. The sonatas take up five volumes:


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7 thoughts on “Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Comparison Summary

  1. Dear Rolf – I’m not sure if you have ever seen this titanic performance of Gulda on YouTube performing the Opus 110 but it is quite stunning and powerful and an unforgettable document.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCOugbPJ_-M

    I only gave you the link to the final movement but the others are there too.

    I continue to find your insights on the Beethoven Quartets remarkably insightful. I agree with you about the Hagen Quartet. Overall I find their performances always sparkling and profound and exciting. And I never knew of the Artemis Quartet’s Beethoven. I’ve sampled some of their Beethoven and look forward to hearing more. Best, Michael

    • Dear Michael, thanks a lot for your comment (I took the liberty to move into the “Beethoven / piano” section … )! I don’t think I have seen this particular video so far: thanks a lot for the pointer! Yes, that’s Gulda at his best! Actually, to differentiate a little more: It’s a while since I have listened to Gulda’s sonata recordings in their entirety — but I think that final part of op.110 always was his very best movement in all the sonatas (in particular, I’m thinking of his Amadeo recordings from the late 60’s), hardly matched by anybody on the modern grand (in other late sonatas, Pollini is often better, I think). This late recording is more emotional — so emotional that he hardly can hold back his body language in the end, and he doesn’t manage to stand still after the end, as he is so taken by this music himself. At the same time, he must have been pretty ill already, and his technique isn’t nearly as fail-safe as in the 60’s and 70’s, there are rhythmic inaccuracies, occasional missed notes etc. — but that doesn’t really affect the overall impression.
      My plan is to return to sonata comparisons some day — for the moment I have “parked” this project, as I hope to see Kristian Bezuidenhout start recording this repertoire on Walter and Graf fortepianos…
      I’m glad you like my postings on the string quartets! One could of course continue forever adding new recordings; I had to draw a line at some point (especially because as of lately concert reviews seem to take up more and more of my time) — but there are a couple exciting young, historically informed ensembles out there that I will keep an eye on (and recommend others doing so as well!), e.g.: Chiaroscuro, and a few others, such as the Cuarteto Casals … it’s good to see that there some really good and promising new talents out there! The Artemis … a pretty sad story, some people say. I do think that the ensemble has lost quality when Natalia Prischepenko left (now they vibrate too much, for my taste), and recently, Friedemann Weigele passed away…
      Best wishes, -Rolf

  2. Rolf –
    Thank you for this very insightful comparison, which I’m very much in line with, and would like to point your attention to the recent re-release* of Stephen Kovacevich’s complete cycle, whose performances to the middle and late period sonatas have captivating power and spark. And talking of spark, the interpretations of Mari Kodama** are middle-of-the-road, but thanks to gorgeous recordings, I tend to come back to them.

    * https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Piano-Sonatas-Bagatelles-9CD/dp/B0714GDHFM/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_15_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=34XR0K9JTCJTNWDK2MW1
    ** https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Complete-Sonatas-Mari-Kodama/dp/B00M8NMML2/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1504375347&sr=1-1

    • Hi Mark, I have heard segments from Steven Kovacevic’s recordings (and I have also reviewed one of hist concerts), so he definitely is on my radar. Given the amount of work that goes into these detailed comparisons (and how busy concert reviews kept me for the past 2 years), I can’t afford too many re-iterations. So, currently, I’m holding back Beethoven sonata reviews to some degree — one major reason also being that I’d LOVE to see more of this from Kristian Bezuidenhout, who is at the very top among my favorites (I have reviewed several Mozart recordings so far, and a recital with Mozart and Beethoven in Cully/Switzerland last year, and a concert in Zurich last November)

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