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A BMInt reviewer on temporary hiatus, I got my start in music criticism in the classical music department at WHRB as an undergraduate, and loved my experience there enough to have returned occasionally to do broadcasts.

The upcoming 250th Beethoven birthday almost demands a WHRB Orgy© of the composer’s 32 published piano sonatas and his 33 Diabelli Variations featuring recordings by 33 different pianists―all masters at the top of their game. I’d also ideally like to have a range of performance eras, from the very first sonata recordings of the 1920’s to the most recent issues. It’s a daunting task to listen to the broad  available range, but crowdsourcing could simplify.

So, BMInt critics and readers, what are your desert island Beethoven piano sonata recording nominations? Please cite as many specifics as you can (Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Kempff, and Daniel Barenboim each did more than one complete cycle, for example). Bonus points will accrue if you can provide a link to audio available through YouTube, Spotify, or some other streaming service, and especially if you can provide some specific thoughts about what’s vital about that performance.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sonata # 1 in f minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Sonata # 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2
Sonata # 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3
Sonata # 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7
Sonata # 5 in c minor, Op. 10, No. 1
Sonata # 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2
Sonata # 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3
Sonata # 8 in c minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”
Sonata # 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1
Sonata #10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2
Sonata #11 in B-flat major, Op. 22
Sonata #12 in A-flat major, Op. 26, “Funeral March”
Sonata quasi una fantasia #13 in E-flat major, Op. 27, No. 1
Sonata quasi una fantasia #14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”
Sonata #15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”
Sonata #16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1
Sonata #17 in d minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”
Sonata #18 in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3, “The Hunt”
Sonata #19 in g minor, Op. 49, No. 1
Sonata #20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2
Sonata #21 in C major, Op. 53, “Waldstein”
Sonata #22 in F major, Op. 54
Sonata #23 in f minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”
Sonata #24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78, “A Thérèse”
Sonata #25 in G major, Op. 79
Sonata #26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les adieux”
Sonata #27 in e minor, Op. 90
Sonata #28 in A major, Op. 101
Sonate für das Hammerklavier #29 in B-flat major, Op. 106
Sonata #30 in E major, Op. 109
Sonata #31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
Sonata #32 in c minor, Op. 111
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabellli, Op. 121


13 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. All of Stephen Kovacevich’s work round 1, from the later 1960s into the 1970s when his last name was Bishop, is extraordinary in its rhythmic and other strengths. Op 31 (so many forms of sturdy wit) and above the last three have not been equaled by my criteria. Transcendent last pages of 109, 110, 111, and the rocking variation of the last and its duplication in the Diabelli variation are without equal. Philips (I believe) original recorded sound is very good but not fully modern of course.
    His later remakes are good and strong but not as invariably rhythmically sturdy and are in many movements surpassed in propulsion and drive by work from Paul Lewis, Charles Rosen, Brendel, Bruce Hungerford, and a few others. I am not a Levit fan particularly.
    Russell Sherman recorded really extraordinary versions of Opus 7 and the Appassionata and I will try and locate what else; those mastertapes are long gone through LP label carelessness.
    I must think further on this and see what is available online.

    Comment by David Moran — March 24, 2020 at 4:20 pm

  2. (I meant the Sherman recordings for Advent from the 1970s, not the later cycle w Schuller, which I do not know well but which is not as straightforward playing.)

    Comment by David Moran — March 24, 2020 at 4:23 pm

  3. I’d have to go with the demonic power of Pogorelich’s Op. 111. #32, 1st mvmt. The CD is available from Amazon. I listened to it twice a day for two weeks in 1987. It was a perfect transition for me while driving to a murder trial in which I was a juror.

    Comment by Bob D. — March 25, 2020 at 10:55 pm

  4. Oh gosh this is just way too much homework for me right now! but fond memories of ”Desert Island Discs” 30 minute radio show and its original presenter Roy Plomley…stay well.

    Comment by Martin Snow — March 26, 2020 at 6:55 am

  5. I’d like to add Julius Katchen’s Op. 111 (#32) from 1955. It’s on You Tube, and I have admired this recording since college, a very long time ago.

    Comment by susan miron — March 26, 2020 at 6:56 pm

  6. When I am banished to a desert island, I plan on sneaking along a few USB sticks, one of which will be dedicated to Beethoven’s solo piano music. No need to be unnecessarily restrictive.What are these disc things you refer to?

    I concur with David Moran on Kovacevich, but I disagree with him about Levit, whom I value highly. I have only listened to his recent release of the complete sonatas sporadically, but his set of the last five – his first recording – has been a close companion for a few years. I think its the best recording of those work released in the last decade or two, though recently I’ve been listening to Steven Osborne’s recordings with a lot of pleasure.

    Going back several decades to the Old School – which I define loosely as pianists who were recording before I was born – Emil Gilels is always magisterial, noble and classical, with great clarity and beauty of tone. He is rarely profound, but he does not try to be. Arrau always tries to be, and sometimes succeeds, which means that listening to him varies between frustrating and deeply rewarding. When Beethoven’s personality resembles his own, he is commanding, but there are many aspects of Beethoven that he doesn’t seem to grasp, especially his mercurial character. This was more common in the days when it was still considered appropriate to put Beethoven high on a pedestal and view him only from afar. I can think of two exceptions; Brendel, and another I will get to later. I think it was Brendel more than any other that persuaded me that all of Beethoven’s sonatas are worth listening to, that he was a composer of a great many minds and moods, of broad wit and good-natured charm to go along with his great passion and sublime vision.

    Of the pianists who have thrived mostly in the last half-century, two I put at the top are Maurizio Pollini and Misuko Uchida. Both of these are at their best in the late sonatas (which are the only ones Uchida has recorded), though Pollini can discover surprising delights in some of the earlier sonatas, and his Tempest s both beautiful and thrilling, as it should be. In the late sonatas they could not be more unlike, yet are both profound. I don’t think I ever really “got” the Hammerklavier until one evening when I sat down on a park bench, put on a pair of headphones, and listened to Uchida’s recording in the dark. I became enlightened; the mystery was opened to me.

    There are many other recordings I have found fascinating and rewarding, including those of Richard Brautigam and Penelope Crawford on fortepiano, Annie Fischer transforming cliche into ceremony in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and Andras Schiff wandering in a ghostly fog in the slow movement of the Waldstein. Piotr Anderszewski plays the Diabelli Variations as if he had discovered them in an obscure manuscript, and was revealing them to the world.

    All of these deities, however, even the ones I most admire, like Brendel, Kovacevich, Pollini, Uchida, and Levit, are of the second rank. The one pianist I regard as above all others when it comes to Beethoven is Sviatoslav Richter. He is the one who carries within him all of Beethoven’s extremities, whose wit is as sardonic, whose pride is as great, and whose reservoir of pain is as deep. He has the virtuosity, the absolute command, that Beethoven took for granted. His performance of the Appassionata is as thrilling as anything ever recorded, driving not just with passion and excitement, but with a kind of compulsion, a weight of necessity. There is an old canard that says that some pianists can play the first movement of Op. 111 well, and some who can play the second movement well, but none who can play both well. Many pianists have disproved this, but none more thoroughly than Richter, who makes it seem inconceivable that the two movements could be separated. His Op. 111 is a journey that ends unimaginably far from where it began, and seems to have traversed the universe.

    Richter was an anti-completist, and there are some sonatas he never played, such as the Waldstein and Les Adieux. The Diabelli Variations and the Hammerklavier were in his repertoire only briefly, but they were recorded, and are brilliant. He did not produce anything like a complete set, and most of his recordings are of live performances, and of varying quality. You have to take what you can get, but you can get a lot (the BBC produced a number of the best recordings). If I were really limited to single disc on my desert island, and could only play it once a year, it would probably be Richter playing Op. 111.

    Comment by SamW — March 26, 2020 at 8:33 pm

  7. How about corollary nominations for the saddest music? What do you want played at your funeral? Please include links.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 27, 2020 at 10:39 am

  8. Yakety Sax

    Comment by David Moran — March 27, 2020 at 1:17 pm

  9. Thanks for the commentary. Assuming that most of us have a little bit of time on our hands, might I ask you to be a little more specific? One of the great challenges is going to be: Richter is phenomenal, as are Solomon, Brautigam, Arrau, Schnabel, both Fischers, Kovacevich, et al, but if you had to name one recording to best exemplify what they do, which one would it be? (I’m not so interested in which recordings are frustrating.)

    And fifteen renditions of Op. 111 is helpful, but I’m going to need a little help with, say, Op. 14, No. 2 and Op. 22.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 30, 2020 at 8:43 am

  10. As a tangential comment, I will take the liberty of submitting an unedited live recording of the fourth movement of Op.2 No.1, from my concert at the Concord Free Public Library in March of 2018.
    Tangential, because it is clearly not a definitive performance; it is not even the best I can do. (Also, it is recorded from the back of the room, per the request of the presenters.)I am submitting it nevertheless along with a suggestion that the BMI may consider starting a forum for this time where interested musicians can offer samples of their performances. It would be a special treat for the musicians, and possibly for some members of the public.
    As for a contrasting mood (perhaps sadder, perhaps not)- also live,unedited,imperfect,same location, in May 2019:
    Needless to say it is up to the editors to decide whether to consider my suggestion,or,in fact, whether to post this message at all.
    Best wishes to everyone.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — March 30, 2020 at 11:56 am

  11. As a collecting teenager of LPs and then CDs, due to financial constraints, I could purchase only one recording of a symphony, concerto, sonata, choral work, Winterreise, etc. This resulted in a very mixed but often wonderful bag of diverse artists. The first recording of Beethoven sonata, Op. 109 I acquired was by the British pianist Dame Myra Hess. This disc now may have some sentimental value, but this is not a sentimental performance, serenity, beautifully balanced chords in the slow passages, clarity in voicing throughout are some of its many virtues. It can hold its own with the many others I now own, due to my adult addiction of “add to cart.”

    What makes this recording resonate now is Dame Myra’s memorable presence while London was undergoing another crisis. All concert halls and theaters were closed during periods of World War II, but in October, 1939, a concert series held at the National Gallery, daily from 1-2 p.m. gave Londoners a chance to hear live music performed by seasoned, professional musicians, this series lasting a number of years. Social distancing was not a factor in this crisis. Dame Myra played often in this venue, both solo and chamber works, the Gallery space actually had a basement shelter. She is well known for her piano transcription of J. S. Bach, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, “the often used translation. We were to hear this arrangement played by Daniil Trifonov as the conclusion to his playing of “Art of the Fugue,” Sunday, March 15th in Symphony Hall. Hopefully another time.

    Dame Myra intensely disliked recording and was not fond of her work in the studio. Of op. 109, she said, “not too bad.” Check out her interview with John Amis on YouTube. Her comments about using her own cadenzas for the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto will produce a chuckle.

    Comment by Terry Decima — April 6, 2020 at 2:47 pm

  12. Thanks so much Terry for reminding me of these two delightful interviews with Dame Myra

    Comment by Martin Snow — April 6, 2020 at 5:18 pm

  13. Her notable student was Kovacevich; wikipedia adds that she also taught Dave Brubeck’s mother.

    Comment by David Moran — April 6, 2020 at 5:32 pm

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