Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 1


Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 1 played by Rudolf Buchbinder in the Mozarteum Großer Saal at the 2014 Salzburg Festival. Here's the program:

  1. Sonata No. 1 in F minor

  2. Sonata No. 10 in G major

  3. Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, “Sonata quasi una fantasia”

  4. Sonata No. 17 in D minor, “The Tempest”

  5. Sonata No. 18 in E flat major

  6. Sonata No. 5 in C minor

  7. Sonata No. 12 in A flat major

  8. Sonata No. 22 in F major

  9. Sonata No. 4 in E flat major

  10. Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, “Moonlight”

Directed for video by Frédéric Delesque. Released 2015, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and disc has 4.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: D+

I feel so sorry for Rudolf Buchbinder, the esteemed piano performer, historian, and Beethoven expert. In 2011, he did a good job with the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos (C Major), but a miserable case of DVDitis hurt that recording badly. We have a nice performance from 2015 by Buchbinder of the Grieg Concerto, but that was at the Schönbrunn Summer Festival where you just can't get a good video of a piano soloist. Last month (November 2015) C Major released a disc with Rudolf playing 10 Beethoven sonatas in 2014 at the Salzburg Festival. I had high hopes for this, but this title is all but ruined for me by a bad video from TV director Frédéric Delesque plus weak disc authorship and packaging by C Major.

First I'll discuss the video. Below is a screenshot that shows what a grand piano should look like in in HDVD (from Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall). You can see each white key clearly separate from the next. You can see the name of the piano maker above the keys, and you can make out a lot of detail from the frame and strings of the piano harp:

Compare the piano image above to the next 3 screenshots from subject Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 1. In the 1st picture below, you can't distinguish most of the white keys from their neighbors, you can only see the ends of the black keys, and you can't read the "Steinway & Sons" name:

In the 2nd and 3rd views, you can't tell the white keys apart nor can you make out much about the piano harp:

Let's move in a bit closer. The next screenshot shows Arcadi Volodos playing with his left hand in Volodos in Vienna. You can distinguish the white and black keys from each other and read "Steinway & Sons" above the keyboard:

And next below is Daniel Barenboim playing with both hands in his Chopin Warsaw Concert. In the images above and below we see sharp resolution of fine detail. This comes from a combination of high raw resolution plus a deep field-of-focus that keeps the image sharp from foreground to background. To achieve this requires enough light, appropriate gear, and good camera operation skills:

Now what kind of keyboard images do we find in subject title? In the next screenshot, Delesques is not able, even in a near close-up, to provide much depth to his field-of-focus. Even when the white keys can be distinguished, the black keys cannot:

And how did this view below get past the film editor?

Next below, nothing is in focus:

Here only one hand is in focus:

And next below the depth of field-of-focus extends for an inch or two. Unfortunately, these few screenshots are not of isolated instances. Almost the entire video suffers from these kinds of errors:

Below we see another problem---the keyboard "wedge" optical illusion. You know the keyboard box is a rectangle. And you know that things further away look smaller, not larger. But below it seems that the keys closest to you and on the right are smaller than the keys to your left and further away. And the keyboard box seems to expand and take on a wedge shape as it recedes. All this comes from the fact that the left side of the image is more out-of-focus than the right side:

Buchbinder has been doing playing the sonatas for a long time, and the exertion required of him now is obvious:

But the reward is great. I'm pretty sure the lady on the right in the shadows of this small auditorium is Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany:

Vol. 1 ends with the famous Sonata No. 14. For reference, I pulled out my old Moonlight LP played by Artur Rubinstein (RCA Red Seal LSC-4001). I still like Artur's performance slightly better than Buchbinder, especially in the beginning Adagio movement with all the moonshine. But if I could only have one Moonlight recording, I would keep the Buchbinder because I prefer surround sound to stereo and I value the absence of snap, crackle, and pop with the Blu-ray disc.

Then when I would listen to Sonata No. 14, I would have to decide whether or not to watch Buchbinder also. I've already complained above about the dingy and defective video. But by now I've seen Buchbinder play 6 concertos and 10 sonatas repeatedly to the point where I feel like I know the guy.  And it's part of the catechism here that seeing a musical performance will enhance the experience of just listening. So I guess I would watch also. But if I start getting too irritated at C Major over the lousy video, I can always just hit the "Pure Audio" button on my remote.

Now let's discuss the C Major disc authorship and packaging. Buchbinder is supposed to know more about Beethoven piano music than anyone else. So what do you get in the keepcase booklet beyond the credits? Well there's about 800 words from Simon Bischoff, a symphony conductor, of disorganized and near idiotic blather praising Buchbinder personally. (Have you ever heard a single critical word from one working classical musician about another working classical musician?) Bischoff does inform us that the Beethoven sonatas are different from each other! Wow! What an insight! Also, Buchbinder doesn't like to play the sonatas in chronological order, but prefers to mix them up so the listener can discern that some of them are little and some bigger. This insulting helping of baby food served on a plastic spoon is all C Major comes up with in support of Vol. 1.

Buchbinder played all the sonatas at Salzburg in 7 sessions. It appears each sonata was recorded separately on a discrete "track." There is no continuity of performance on Vol. 1---what you see are 10 separate mini-performances (you can even see differences in the audience).  Nor is there any explanation why the selections on Vol. 1 were picked (it does seem logical somehow that Sonata No. 1 should come first). I'll guess that the same format will be followed on Vol. 2 and Vol. 3. I guess Vol. 2 will end with the "Pathétique" and Vol. 3 with the "Appassionata" or perhaps the "Hammerklavier."

My point now is that Buchbinder and C Major have 32 separate sonata recordings which they could arrange in any order they like. So it would have been easy to publish all of them in chronological order at once on 2 or 3 Blu-ray discs. This would have been appealing. I know this because I've had the experience of hearing all the Beethoven sonatas played in chronological order.

I had the good fortune on March 21, 2015 of hearing Stewart Goodyear play in Dallas, Texas all the Beethoven piano sonatas on a single day, from memory, with no discernable error. As a warm-up prelude, Goodyear did 18 and 19, which were written by Beethoven for his students to play.  Then Goodyear played the remaining 30 sonatas in chronological order as follows:

Part 1: 10 a.m. – 1:40 p.m. - Sonatas No. 1 through 11 including Pathetique and the Grand Sonata

Part 2: 3:00 pm – 6:30 p.m. - Sonatas No. 12 through 23 (except 19 & 20) including the Moonlight, Pastoral, Tempest, Waldstein, and Appassionata

Part 3: 8:00 p.m. – 10:50 p.m. - Sonatas No. 24 through 32, including Les Adieux and Hammerklavier 

As an old soldier, I stayed in column every step of the way. As a relative newcomer to the sonatas, I could hear that each is different. I also got a feel for the entire arc of Beethoven's life with cautious beginnings, a glorious maturity, and the struggles thereafter.  I could not pick out which sonatas contained singular or even revolutionary breakthroughs in the piano literature. But I did perceive the whole, and now I'm ready to learn more.

Hearing Goodyear's sonatathon was doable and worth the effort. I could not, however, contemplate trying to listen to all the sonatas in one day in random order. Because of this experience, I conclude that Buchbinder and C Major made a big error in presenting the sonatas at random.

The jumble of sonatas also creates a secondary problem for anyone trying to learn more about them. I've heard Beethoven made in the sonatas many advances in the art of the piano. But how could one logically discuss these advances in random order? To learn more about inner workings and technical content of the sonatas, wouldn't you need to proceed step by step in the same order as Beethoven developed his skills and matured?

So now we come to my biggest complaint about subject title: Buchbinder and C Major make not the slightest effort to inform their customers about any details of contents of the sonatas or the advances in state-of-the art Beethoven made while writing them. At a minimum, the keepcase booklet should have had a print discussion about each sonata. Much better would have been short videos made of Buchbinder lecturing on each sonata and playing excerpts from each as to things the listener should be alert to notice. For an example of how easy and effective short videos by experts can be, see any of the Priory organ recital discs we now have such as The Grand Organ of Coventry Cathedral. On all these Priory discs, the featured organist lectures on video about each selection played in the main program. And Priory also provides written background for each selection! It's not a hard thing to do, and it's so valuable to novice listeners!

I've got to bring this too-windy review to an end. Soon C Major will release Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 ($40 a whack). After that will come the Complete Beethoven Sonatas Box Set.  It's obvious: Buchbinder played the sonatas at Salzburg to an elite festival audience and that transaction is closed. C Major now attempts with a bare, bare minimum investment to wring additional profits from the event without doing anything that technology now allows to help music lovers learn more about the music. This business model died decades ago with the LP. The industry keeps complaining that people no longer support classical music as before. Nonsense. The industry is dumping to the classical music market inane and slovenly-made products that don't deserve to be purchased. Don't go for it! Boycott! Or rather, check out the many new HDVD opera and ballet titles we are getting these days that are worth your time and money. Grade: "D+"

Update on 2016-02-04 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

As predicted, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 were soon released.

Update on 2016-09-15 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Well, the predicted box of all the sonatas came out in late 2016.