Review by: Jed Distler
Artistic Quality: 6
Sound Quality: 9
Here is the fourth Beethoven sonata cycle from Daniel Barenboim to appear on CD, along with his fourth Diabelli Variations. Recorded in the spring of 2020 during lockdown, these recordings reveal that Barenboim doesn’t play as well as he used to–and he never was a consistent virtuoso to begin with.
On the plus side, slow movements are more probing and gratifyingly sustained, such as those in Op. 10 No. 3, Op. 26, and the “Hammerklavier” Op. 106. Conversely, movements requiring the utmost in suppleness and élan (like most of the Scherzos, and the finales of Op. 2 No. 1, Op. 78, Op. 31 No. 3, and Op. 81a) lack the crispness and drive of old. His Romantically-tinged “Pathétique” sonata does not match his like-minded 1998 Erato recording’s firm balances and poise. It’s also sad to hear Barenboim slog through the “Pastoral” sonata Rondo’s tricky coda that he once navigated with winged grace. I could keep on citing examples, but you get the picture.
Granted, Barenboim sometimes rises to the occasion and channels his younger self, as in his hair-raising Appassionata finale coda, and the unusually lithe broken chords throughout Variation 10 in the Diabellis. The colorful timbral qualities of Barenboim’s straight-strung Steinway also convey intriguing textural dimension in the Op. 31 No. 1 finale’s counterlines and in the long chains of trills in the concluding variation movements of Op. 109 and Op. 111.
The bottom line is that Barenboim’s Beethoven cycles never have been consistent enough to warrant a recommendation without reservations or caveats. That was true then, and even more so now. Several bonus discs contain selected Beethoven sonatas that the teenage Barenboim recorded for Westminster in the late 1950s. Their brittle, dry, and dynamically constricted sonics preclude easy listening.
Reference Recording: 32 Sonatas: Arrau (Philips); Levit (Sony), Diabelli Variations: Stephen Kovacevich (Onyx); Rosen (IMP Digital)