|Artur Schnabel (mono)|
1932 - 1935 - HMV
Artur Schnabel, the first pianist to record all 32 Beethoven sonatas, is still held in the highest esteem by many piano aficionados and his recordings much sought after. You will know if or when you want Schnabel's complete set - which, to some, is key to understanding Schnabel and even Beethoven. It is not recommended for those who are just beginning to explore these works in depth as neither the recording quality nor the technical accuracy is up to modern standards.
The sound is hampered either by high levels of noise or, when those were carelessly removed, a flat, thin, and tinny sound. Pearl leaves in the most noise but also the most piano sound. Your ears do the filtering which, for small listening sessions, yields the best results. Dante (oop) does the opposite, but at least they do it well. EMI, too, overfilters. Naxos offers a good compromise and is recommended ahead of EMI. I don't know the Regis re-mastering. Various other labels have received scathing reviews for their re-mastering efforts and are probably best avoided.
Wilhelm Backhaus I (mono)
1950 - 1954 - Decca
This first Beethoven cycle (mono) of Wilhelm Backhaus has long been a classic, and as is typical for mono cycles that are out of print, it is often regarded as superior to his later stereo cycle. Whether this is actually true or not I cannot tell, as I have yet to track a copy down. Last seen in an Italian edition, not even HMV-Japan has been able to furnish me a copy. If or when I know of a new availability, I'll be happy to share it here, though.
Not currently available apart from (illegal) torrent downloads.
Friedrich Gulda "0" (mono)
1953 - 1954 - Orfeo
Austrian Radio air-to-broadcast recordings in better sound than the set that followed shortly thereafter. Dug out only in 2010, after "Gulda I" (Decca) and "Gulda II" (Amadeo) had already been established as such. This makes Gulda join Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in the club of pianists who have recorded the complete Beethoven Sonatas more than twice.
Yves Nat (mono)
1953 - 1955 - EMI
There were always great "German" Beethoven-cycles around so that a listener outside of France never really had to seriously consider a French sonata cycle. And while the French could not avoid the marvel that is Gieseking's Debussy, no French pianist ever championed Beethoven with such compelling excellence that anyone outside of France was forced to take note. None of this is to say that Yves Nat's cycle was not a great accomplishment (though in some way, every such cycle is), or that it isn't rewarding to seek this one out. Nat's very casual playing (a musical stroll, no climbing of looming mountains - most lovely in the op.14 sonatas) does have its attractions and followers. In an interview with Colin Clarke (Fanfare Magazine) Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a student-of-a-student of Nat, extols the virtues of Nat's Beethoven, and Clarke agrees. De gustibus...
|Wilhelm Kempff I (mono)|
1951 - 1956 - Deutsche Grammophon
Another of these early, great cycles. Mono again, a little difficult or at least expensive to get, and therefore much hailed? Re-listening to these recordings, it turns out that its merits--stand alone, but also comparatively--are really strong, indeed. Especially the early sonatas and lesser known sonatas Kempff comes across as having great fun with his footloose LvB. The mono sound is easily good enough to appeal even to those who don't like historic recordings.
|Friedrich Gulda I (mono/stereo)|
1954 - 1958 - Decca
Gulda's first cycle would probably be extolled as "even better" than his much and highly regarded second one if only it were out of print. But it isn't and while it is unarguably a very interesting set that Decca has brought back to life, there are spots of less fortunate sound quality and all in all it doesn't quite sound as liberated as his second traversal a good decade later.
|Alfred Brendel I (stereo)|
1961 - 1964 - Vox-Turnabout
When Brendel set our to record Beethoven for Vox-Turnabout, it wasn't just the complete sonatas but indeed the (more or less) complete solo works for piano that he put on record. Brendel wasn't always proud of his early recordings and he went on to record the sonatas twice more for Philips... though what I've heard of this set (some of which is also in the Brilliant Beethoven box) holds up quite nicely, actually.
Availability: Licensed by Brilliant Classics and available in various sets, including below 'stand alone'.
|Wilhelm Kempff II (stereo)|
1964/65 - Deutsche Grammophon
Wilhelm Kempff "II" is the classic among Beethoven sonta cycles. Why exactly that is the case is difficult to say, because Kempff convinces through subtlety and superb accounts of all the lesser known and 'little' sonatas. In the bigguns, he is rarely outright impressive. Kempff is not as perpetually understated as Backhaus and he can even be quite playful. Solid, in the best, most empathetically positive sense of the word.
|Claudio Arrau I |
1962 - 1966 - Philips
To ears reared on Pollini, Arrau's Beethoven can take some time getting used to, in good part due to the deliberate tempos he often chooses. But it's incredibly musical stuff worth all that effort, even if some of the last five sonatas don't appear as grand as elsewhere. To many of its owners, the original Philips pressings set a new standard in piano reproduction.
Availability: Deleted on Philips, revived on Decca.
|Wilhelm Backhaus II (stereo*)|
1958* - 1969 - Decca
To paraphrase myself (referring to a Beethoven Concerto DVD): There is purpose behind every note; purpose at the service of the music, not Backhaus' own ego. No unnecessary tone or emotion comes from this outwardly impassive man; there is no smudging to 'improve' individual instances. Like less-than-refined brush strokes in great painting, an almost barren tone with Backhaus emerges as an essential part of the unadulterated whole.
Backhaus is “nobility but not ‘power’, seriousness without pompousness, devotion with no show of ‘piety’” and although it may be 'too little' for some, it amounts to 'everything' I ask of Beethoven.
Part 2: 1967 - 1975
Part 3: 1977 - 1989
Part 4: 1990 - 1996
Part 5: 1996 - 1999
Part 6: 2000 - 2005
Part 7: 2006 - 2009
Part 8: 2010 onward
If you have additional information about recording dates, availability, cover art -- or corrections and additions -- your input is much appreciated.
This survey is meant to list all complete sets of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas and their availability in different markets, not to review them.