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If anyone has lived with the Beethoven Sonatas, it’s Rudolf Buchbinder. So it seems fitting that he should have performed the first complete cycle at the Salzburg Festival – the first two volumes of which are reviewed here. Buchbinder apparently owns 38 complete editions of the Beethoven sonatas: there are complete traversals on CD available also, but this is his first on DVD. Although not technically perfect, there is a consistency here born of a lifetime’s study that is most impressive, together with an enriching interpretative depth.

Playing a Steinway, Buchbinder is served by a warm but clear recording that conveys the myriad changes of tone he brings. The camerawork is generally non-interventionist.

Much thought has gone into the actual programming. So although the cycle begins with Op 2/1, thereafter things get more unpredictable, with juxtaposed sonatas consistently illuminating their neighbours. Throughout, Buchbinder plays with an authoritative, aristocratic stance that is all his own.

Volume 1 groups together Op 2/1 (a phenomenal performance that ensures we encounter Beethoven’s greatness even at this early stage) with the gentle G major Op 14/2 (with surpassing beauty of tone and more considered than, say, Backhaus) leading to an equally inviting Op 27/1 (here perhaps eclipsed by Brendel for serenity).

The sheer depth of Buchbinder’s interpretation is clear in his handling of the tempo alternations of Op 31/2(i), and his pedalwork in the famous ‘recitatives’ of that movement. It is instructive, too, how Buchbinder finds the dynamic heart of Op 10/1, including in the accents of the central Adagio molto, and then instantly enters the hushed world of Op 26; this sonata’s Marcia funebre acts as a sad prolongation of this first movement. Buchbinder brings an Arrau-like beauty to the elusive F major Op 54; the Op 7 Sonata, in a monumental performance, contrasts perfectly with the tranquillity of Op 27/2(i). Buchbinder may lose out to the virtuosity of, say, Pollini in the finale of the Moonlight, but only just.

Volume 2 does not disappoint, from Op 2/3 with its perfectly judged sense of space through to Les Adieux, shot through with sorrow. If there is a slip in consistency it is Op 10/3(i), less involved and less accurate. Perhaps the Op 101 to follow was on his mind: this appears in a miraculous performance, with a superb grasp of Beethoven’s counterpoint.

The final DVD pits three of the more lightweight sonatas (Op 10/2, 78, 31/1) against the mightiest of them all. Buchbinder manages to make Op 10/2 into something of a profound statement; Op 78 is given in one of the finest performances on record, perfectly crafted and judged. There seems no loss of concentration for the pre-Hammerklavier Op 31/1; but it is Op 106 that shows Buchbinder’s core traits: intelligence, profundity and a superb managing of the finale’s complexities. While perhaps not dislodging Gilels and Pollini, this remains a superb achievement.

Documentation is poor: two short pages by Simon Bischoff (identical in both boxes but for some reason given different titles). Nevertheless, these recordings are highly recommended.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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