Author Topic: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven  (Read 378 times)

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Offline Todd

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Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« on: October 14, 2017, 07:51:31 AM »





In the middle of the first decade of this century, I picked up Claudio Arrau's complete cycle from the 60s and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It didn't and doesn't crack my personal top ten, but it has remained firmly entrenched in the still exalted second tier based on occasional single sonata and disc outings.  For a long time, I wanted to get his almost complete 80s cycle, but it has been prohibitively expensive.  I was able to procure an MP3 copy a few years ago, and while that means sub-optimal sound, it's good enough to be able to hear the differences.  (Indeed, fingernails and heavy breathing are as obvious in the later recordings.)  I figured it was time for a proper A/B of the two sets. 

There's really no better way to go through Beethoven's sonata than in sonata number order, so that's what I did.  It's been a while since I last listened to the first complete set, and my stereo has gone through multiple upgrades.  Before, some fingernail clacking was to be heard, and the occasional errant noise and breathing was evident in the 60s cycle.  Now, there are breathing and errant noises (various creak and clacks) to be heard throughout.  Beyond that, what there is to hear in the first three sonatas is a very earnest, serious approach to the playing.  Just a bit on the broad side, but still effortlessly flowing (for the most part), Arrau exudes enough energy and bite (in the Prestissimo of 2/1) and virtuosity (in 2/3, sounding almost Op 50-ish) to make the works sound like the near-masterpieces they are.  And of course there's his tone, robust and full.  One thing that struck me more now than before was his technical command, which while excellent, falls short of the modern, younger superhuman pianists of today.  (The Allegro vivace of 2/2 and the slightly broad Allegro assai both have some playing that sounds purposely dialed back.)  The 80s recordings don't really vary a great deal in overall conception, or in the need for a better manicure, though the playing sounds a bit less secure in more places, and the tone sounds a little lighter and brighter, though that is at least partly due to the combination of the early digital sonics and MP3 lossiness.  Much of the time, doing an A/B resulted in a "I just listened to this" feeling, but here and there Arrau rushes a phrase or plays an arpeggio slightly differently or something seems strained and slower.  The playing also sounds slightly smaller in scale, and in more vigorous passages, there's less vim and vigor.  Slow movements tend not to flow quite as well, but they also sound a bit more thoughtful.  Also, a few times, some edits sound a bit obvious, though that's more the producer's fault.  I did find it odd that Arrau dropped the repeat in the Allegro vivace of 2/2 in the later recording, given his tendency to observe all repeats, and Arrau's occasionally maxxed out execution in some of the playing is as obvious as some of Kempff's, but without the musical irrelevance.  Arrau also takes quite a bit longer in the Rondo, to not so hot effect.  The third sonata is a bit slow and lumbering in the opening movement, but picks up from there, with an Allegro assai that flows better. 

Arrau's 60s Op 7 sounds leisurely but flowing in faster movements, somberly slow in the Largo, and overall is amply strong and well articulated enough to sound just swell, if not top twenty (or thirty) quality.  The 80s recording, while barely longer, and not as secure, and not as flowing, nonetheless sounds freer and lighter overall, and the Largo manages to be more moving but less weighty/weighed down, and the Rondo adds some sweetness to the playing.  From Arrau.  Here's a case where the elderly Arrau trumps the late middle age Arrau.  The recording might find its way into a shootout.

The 60s Op 10 trio starts with a 10/1 with a nice ascending arpeggio and sufficient energy and scale in the outer movements, and a drawn out and unyouthful but attractive slow movement; moves to a 10/2 that sounds perhaps just a bit too big and robust (and with tape limitations obvious), especially in the overcooked Allegretto, but that nonetheless makes for an enjoyable listen; and finishes with a 10/3 where Arrau starts off fast and weighty in the Presto, and a dramatic and romanticized Largo (with some now audible tape distortion), and satisfyingly peppy playing in the Menuetto and Rondo.  The 80s set offers a very similar overall take for 10/1, with a bit less energy, and with some differently accentuated arpeggios and figurations in the second movement and a less well held together closer; boasts a superior 10/2 that finds Arrau playing with a lighter, nearly frolicsome demeanor in the outer movements, and the Allegretto is not as heavy and romanticized; and ends with a 10/3 that is stylistically similar, but not as potent or weighty or agile, and it sounds even more compressed than the other MP3 files, so I wonder if some studio post-production processing was involved. 

The 60s Pathétique sounds big and broad and romantic, and if it lacks the drive, intensity, speed, and nimble fingerwork of other versions, it satisfies in its old school way, and the 80s version sounds similar in conception but a bit saggier in execution.  The 60s Op 14 sonatas are leisurely tempo-wise, but manage to still evoke a sense of fun and lightness, if of the prim and proper variety.  The 80s Op 14 sonatas are just too slow and heavy and cumbersome (14/1) or digitally dodgy and slow and cumbersome (14/2) to really enjoy.  On the plus side, there are worse recordings out there.  In the 60s Op 22, Arrau infuses the opening movement with not a little brio and hefty left hand playing; plays the Adagio in subdued, serious, middle or late LvB fashion (which is not to say ponderous), with each note so distinct and clear at times that when one string goes catawampus two minutes in, it is clearly audible; plays a suitably energetic Minuetto; and closes with a just a bit broad Rondo that mixes energy and unyouthful playing quite nicely.  The 80s 22 starts off with a less energetic brio that is less secure than the earlier version, and the moves to an Adagio that, though slow and even more solidly late LvB in style, nonetheless sounds lighter and holds together better, before moving to a labored Minuetto and just plain too slow Rondo.  The 60s Op 26 starts with an Andante where the overall tempo is broad, but Arrau variegates the variations nicely, and then he moves to a truly energetic Scherzo, a bold and predictably large scaled and serious funeral march, and he closes with a very beefy Allegro.  It's a top shelf recording.  The 80s recording starts with a really rather dreadful Andante, with Arrau stiff and struggling through parts of the movement.  The Scherzo sounds scarcely better, while the funeral march manages to sound only slow and heavy, and the Allegro is slow, heavy, and unsteady.  A flop of a recording.   The 60s Pastorale is generally slow and warm and biggish sounding in the opening two movements, which works very well, and then Arrau gets all vibrant in the outer sections of the Allegro, which has a slow trio, and then wraps up with a comparatively light and fun Rondo, save for the more intense but not really intense middle section.  An outstanding recording overall.  The 80s recording is very close in overall approach, just basically slower and less secure.  I think I'll stick with the earlier recording going forward.

In the critical Op 31 trios, the younger Arrau opens the first sonata with an energetic and playful Allegro vivace.  He gets the mood just right.  He takes his sweet time in the Adagio grazioso, but it retains a playful air, even when he builds up to the purposely exaggerated middle section, which is done to perfection within the confines of Arrau's style.  (Alas, the pianist's lengthy fingernails make themselves very obvious in some of the numerous trills.)  The Rondo is masterful in tempo choices and overall execution.  A great reading of this sonata.  The older Arrau sounds heavier and less secure in the Allegro vivace, with playfulness less noticeable.  Arrau shaves about a minute off the Adagio grazioso, and it sounds more serious in purpose but lighter in delivery, as does the Rondo.  An excellent version overall, but the earlier one is better.  In the 60s Tempest, Arrau starts with a tense Largo and then launches into a beefy, powerful, driven, but not rushed Allegro; it's romantic and intense, but not overdone.  It's just right.  The Adagio is slow and heavy, and sometimes near-static, but all in a good way.  Arrau plays the Allegretto in broad fashion, and it lacks the drama and drive of the first two movements, but he makes it sound ideally balanced.  Another great recording.  The 80s recording seems to strive for a similar effect in the first movement, but the overall tempo choices don't jell as well, and some of the phrasing seems rushed or strained and the impact is muted.  The Adagio is slow and dramatic but lacks the tension of the earlier version, and just doesn't hold together as well, while the Allegretto, featuring some relatively prominent left hand playing, sags in more than a few places, and ends up sounding ponderous.  It's no match for the earlier recording.  In the 60s 31/3, Arrau maintains his big, full sound in the opening Allegro, and while it sounds impish here and there, it's somewhat serious.  To Arrau's credit, it works perfectly.  Arrau also keeps the Scherzo just a bit on the serious and heavy side, and if it doesn't work as well as the opener, it still works.  Arrau makes his heavy, serious approach work far better than it should in the Menuetto, and especially the nearly lumbering trio.  The Presto con fuoco, hampered by tape overload, sounds just peachy, with rollicking rhythm and boisterous energy.  Another great reading overall and one of the great Op 31 trios on disc.  I came to the 80s recording expecting another slower, heavier, and less secure rendition, but instead I got a lighter, peppier (considering Arrau's style) Allegro, a Scherzo that sounds jollier and more impish, a Menuetto that retains the effective heaviness throughout while enhancing the touching element of the outer sections, all while being more emphatic in the trio, and a Presto con fuoco bursting with wit and verve, at least most of the time.  This recording is notably better than the already superb 60s version, and rates as one of the finest I've heard.  The overall trio, though, is not as good as the earlier set.

The 60s Op 49 sonatas are beautiful and slow and somewhat heavy.  The 80s recordings are a bit lighter, but the first is still a bit serious for the material, though the second is a delight.  The 60s Waldstein opens in a slow and lethargic manner that sounds more Andante sans brio than Allegro con brio, though things pick up after a minute-and-a-half, just to slow way down again.  I enjoy dynamic and dramatic contrasts, but this approach does not work for me here.  The Introduzione is slow and dark-hued and somber, and this works much better, though here some playing borders on the stiff, and the finale opens a subdued wash of legato-laden beauty before switching to a weighty, rich, powerful sound possessed of ample scale and speed and drama.  Overall, good, but not a favorite.  The 80s recording, with its 12'28" opening movement, is a smidge worse than the earlier recording as it pertains to the traits I dislike, and less good in the traits I do like.  The Introduzione is qualitatively about the same, and, somewhat surprisingly, the Rondo is actually a bit better overall, rendering this about a qualitative tie with the earlier recording.  The 60s Op 54 opening movement has a lovely first theme and a wonderfully contrasted triplets second theme that sounds massive and full toned and almost symphonically scaled, if not as fast as some other versions.  The second movement starts off slow, and Arrau never really plays it fast, but instead he builds up to monumental momentum that carries him right through to the end.  The 80s version sounds like it is going for something similar in the opener, and succeeds in the first theme, but the second theme sounds close to clumsy.  The second movement is smaller in scale and less momentous and well executed than the earlier recording.  The 60s recording is much better here.  In the 60s Appassionata, Arrau starts off quietly and slowly in the Allegro assai and at 11'20", his take never ends up being about speed and intensity; instead, he builds up to a pianistic equivalent of a wall of sound that again imparts a sense of unstoppable momentum.  The Andante con moto is tonally rich and muted until the transition to the Allegro ma non troppo, which is played with a nice sense of urgency and honkin' scale, but it never really generates the degree of intensity that other recordings do.  The 80s recording ends up more or less like other later recordings, sounding slower, smaller (though still beefy), and less secure, but partly because of the approach and the more reverberant recording, some of the little touches sound more compelling - some of the trills in the Allegro assai, for instance, sound more late-LvB style - and combine to create a sort of timeless if tired (or maybe weary) sound.  This is reinforced with an almost liturgical sounding Andante con moto, one sounding so reverent that even some Japanese pianists (Sonoda above all) might suggest lightening up a bit.  The long Allegro ma non troppo, in which Arrau sounds taxed, nonetheless manages to impart a sense of seriousness and devotion and drama that succeeds in making this more enjoyable than the earlier recording, against all reasonable expectations.

The 60s Op 78 is once again just a bit broad, but it flows nicely in the opening movement, and sounds energetic and nearly spunky in the second.  The 80s Op 78 starts off with a more energetic and pointed first movement (possibly partly due to the recording), and moves to a just as spunky but not as effective or controlled Allegro vivace.  In the 60s Op 79, Arrau opens the Presto all tedesca a bit heavy, but quickly course corrects and plays the rest very nicely, including the nicely jokey acciaccatura.  The Andante is serious and beautiful and would not be out of place in another late work, and the Vivace is good fun.  The Op 80s recording sounds even lighter and more fun in the opening movement, just as serious in the second, and nearly as light in the last.  Both are very good, if not the best.  The 60s Op 81a starts with a somewhat light, for Arrau, Das Lebewohl, possessed of notable forward drive and not much in the way of what one would think would accompany a farewell.  (It also possesses a notable amount of tape overload.)  Abwesenheit is a bit more emotive, though not heart on sleeve, and transitions to a nicely celebratory but still contained Das Wiedersehen.  The 80s recording is stylistically very similar, with the more distant, resonant recording sort of making it sound a bit grander in conception.  The 60s Op 90 opens finds Arrau playing the movement with palpable tension, weight, and nimble fingerwork, though the fastest playing trades speed and strength.  The second movement flows nicely enough, and maintains a nice, rich tone.  The 80s recording finds Arrau playing the heavy chords heavier and slower than in the earlier recording, but the faster passages have more bite and seeming anger in them, and here Arrau does not seem to trade speed for strength.  The second movement does not flow quite as well as the earlier recording, and but it sounds tenser and more focused.  The 80s recording might be slightly preferable.

Arrau starts off the last five sonatas in his 60s cycle with an Op 101 where the Allegretto ma non troppo first movement is nowhere near Allegretto.  It's more like a pondering (not ponderous) Adagio, deeply rooted in a transcendent late LvB soundworld, while the more traditionally quick and pointed Vivace alla marcia sounds just nifty.  The Adagio ma non troppo then returns to the feel of the opener and slows it down and deepens it.  I could very easily understand if some people found it too slow, but Arrau pulls it off.  The trills that lead to the opening of the Allegro are solid and strong, and the piece ends with Arrau's weighty playing which, if not the most meticulously and rapidly played, still manages to make the fugal writing sound like something more.  A great Op 101.  The 80s recording starts off with a likewise slow but craggier Allegretto ma non troppo; it sounds less transcendent, but more potent.  Alas, the Vivace alla marcia is less secure and vibrant.  The Adagio is again craggier, as is the Allegro, which ends up sounding more solid than the march. 

For the Hammerklavier, Arrau never made a recording after the Philips set, so that's all I had to listen to.  (Maybe one day I will track down his 1954 recording.)  The initial tempo Arrau chooses sounds much slower than the fairly standard overall timing would allow for, and as such he picks up the pace pretty quickly.  The opening few moments thus sound a bit off, but the rest of the movement works well enough and has enough heft, without overdoing it.  The Scherzo sounds fairly conventional throughout.  The long, twenty minute plus Adagio is of the heavy and dour variety, very serious, very desolate, and very romantic in approach.  It works quite nicely for what it is.  The final movement opens with a slow and somber Largo, and then Arrau launches into a faster and nimbler than expected fugue.  Overall, an excellent, if not top twenty or thirty take.

The 60s Op 109, on the very broad side tempo-wise overall, opens with a broad, rich Vivace ma non troppo.  It never quite establishes a particularly transcendent sound, but it sounds so serious and lovely that it is hard to fault.  The Prestissimo is a bit broad and heavy duty.  In the opening theme of the final movement, Arrau finally delivers transcendent playing which melds perfectly with his tone.  Arrau slows down from his already stately pace in the first variation, to the music's detriment.  The near stasis does not add additional depth; it just makes the playing sound too slow.  Fortunately, the second variation, while also broad, is lighter and more ethereal, and the third variation, despite a somewhat stiff start, is played with enough energy and drive.  The rest of the variations, though, all sound too slow and at times heavy.  The overall tempo is just too slow.  The 80s recording finds Arrau tightening things up a bit in the opening movement, and while not as rich, it sounds more transcendent and stylistically right.  Likewise with the Prestissimo, which also sounds groovier, in a proper sorta way.  The opening theme of the final movement is just about as slow as before, but here Arrau does evoke more of a late-LvB sound, a couple stiff phrases aside.  He again plays the second variation very slowly, but here it works much better.  He'll hold notes and chords just the right length of time, and there's a gentler and more ethereal feel.  The second variation ends up evoking the "little stars" of Op 111, and the third variation, while a bit slow and heavy, effectively maintains a nice late LvB sound, and the remaining variations, while also a bit slow, and even solemn at times, sound much better and more effective than the earlier recording, with the trills in the final variation again evoking Op 111.  Even with some slips in the last movement, the 80s recording is much better than the 60s one. 

The 60s Op 110 opens with a flowing, beautiful Moderato chock full of rich cantabile playing.  Some of the playing, though attractive, becomes a bit stiff and nearly gruff, and when combined with the aged sound, ends up detracting a bit.  The Allegro molto sounds too slow, and the forte playing sounds more mezzo-forte, if that, and the trio sounds a bit clunky.  The first arioso section of the final movement, played slowly, is of the transcendental variety and the listener can be gently swept away by its beauty.  The fugue starts off slow and deliberate, and Arrau never really speeds up, though he plays in such a way as to add nice scale.  The second arioso sounds lovely, but it doesn't flow as well, sounding chunkier.  The repeated chords sound dark and rich, and build up in volume decently, and the sustain pedal almost adds an aura of mystery.  The inverted fugue is stylistically the same, and while Arrau plays with a bit more drive as the coda approaches, it sounds strained.  There are some really nice thing in this recording, but too many caveats for it to be a top thirty contender.  The 80s recording starts off with a much slower Moderato.  It sounds more intimate and personal, if also a bit too deliberate in parts.  The Allegro molto is slower and heavier than the earlier recording, and just doesn't work that well.  The final movement starts with a too slow but still transcendent first arioso, and somehow Arrau makes it work better than the earlier recording.  He plays the fugue slowly, but it has enough clarity and late LvB sound to work, while the second arioso sounds close to the first, though the repeated chords sound dark but a bit weak.  The inverted fugue finds Arrau playing anemically, episodically, and effortfully, and the piece ends with a so-so coda.  Again, there are some fine moments, but this is not as good as the earlier effort.

The 60s Op 111 starts off with a heavy and dark but not especially ominous Maestoso, and a weighty but not especially vigorous or driven Allegro.  The Arietta is very slow and serious, but not much beyond that.  The first two variations are slow and serious, and the third picks up the pace a bit more than expected.  The little stars section is strangely dull, the playing a bit forced and unsteady.  While some playing sounds very late-LvB in quality, some sounds stiff and plain.  The chains of trills are variable, the first nicely executed but kind of drab, the later trills brighter and lighter and more transcendent, and the coda is nicely Elysian.  A very nice version, but not one for the ages.  The 80s recording starts with a more effortful Maestoso and Allegro that makes up for a lack of supreme execution with a more appropriate overall feel.  The Arietta sounds lovely and a bit lighter, the first two variations a bit more lively while still transcendent, and the boogie-woogie variation sounds better in spirit if less assured in execution.  The "little stars" sound more mysterious and ethereal than before, though even here execution seems more strained.  Likewise, the chains of trills are not as well executed, but Arrau gets the spirit of the music just right, especially leading up to the coda, with the coda itself is sublime.  Here's one final case where the older Arrau outdoes the younger Arrau.

Relistening to the 60s set after a lengthy break, and after hearing dozens of other cycles in the interim, I am forced to conclude that Arrau's 60s set just doesn't really do it for me overall.  There are some mighty fine highlights, but the set drops from second tier to third tier overall.  The 80s set represents a sort of step down, with most sonatas sounding too slow and not secure enough.  However, there are cases where the older Arrau upstages the younger Arrau - Opp 7, 10/2, 31/3, 90, 109, 111 - so the later cycle lands in the third tier as well. 
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Offline Mandryka

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: October 14, 2017, 09:22:40 AM »
I'll just mention, Todd, that there's a live Appassionata on Haensler which, for reasons I can't fully explain, moves me very much, more than the two studio recordings you just mentioned. It's really tragic.
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Offline Mandryka

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #2 on: October 14, 2017, 09:47:55 AM »
What did you make, Todd, of Op 27/2? Is it in there and I missed it? I can't remember either studio one but there's a live one on Aura which is a favourite.

The second recording he made of the  Diabelli Variations is in that Heritage box I think -  I just can't enjoy it. 
« Last Edit: October 14, 2017, 09:49:32 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline Jo498

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #3 on: October 14, 2017, 12:28:42 PM »
I have the 1960s recordings (in an italian Decca issue that unfortunately has a botched beginning of the "Eroica variations"). When I got into classical music in the late 1980s Arrau was among the most revered of the still living pianists, especially for "serious austro-germanic repertoire". His 1960s Beethoven certainly was among the handful or so of "classics" or standard recommendations.

Overall I tend to find Arrau too slow and humorless. There are some exceptions but generally he seems better the more serious the music is (and because of some slow tempi he is not ferocious enough for me in some of the more serious pieces either). As far as I recall I did not much care for his Appassionata and op.27/2, neither for the Waldstein but was positively surprised by most of op.2 (despite lack of "youthful" spontaneity). I also liked his op.106 (but it's been a long time I listened to it, I had this long before as a single). Compared to his broad tempi in other works he is fairly quick in op.106,i (similar tempo to Pollini).
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Offline Todd

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #4 on: October 14, 2017, 12:30:03 PM »
What did you make, Todd, of Op 27/2? Is it in there and I missed it? I can't remember either studio one but there's a live one on Aura which is a favourite.


I looked through my initial scribblings and couldn't find the first pass - it took a little over a month to listen to both sets back to back, and impressions are written on the first listen and revised with the second - so this is the TL;DR version: 60s Arrau in Op 27/1 is a bit too broad until the Allegro vivace, and the aged sound limits dynamic contrasts, and the same holds true for the 80s recording, though dynamics are slightly better and the playing slightly less secure sounding.  In 27/2, there is only the 60s recording, which works well in the first movement, is a bit too stodgy in the second, while the third is energetic and dramatic enough to satisfy.  None of the three recordings rate among my favorites.
« Last Edit: October 14, 2017, 12:32:12 PM by Todd »
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Offline Oldnslow

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #5 on: October 14, 2017, 04:15:30 PM »
I found Arrau's book "Conversations with Arrau" very enjoyable--a great painist in my opinion. I was fortunate to hear him once near the end of his career.

Offline Holden

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #6 on: October 15, 2017, 01:44:33 PM »
Like Todd, I'm not an overall fan of Arrau's Beethoven with two exceptions.

His recording of Op 111 on a Classical Archives DVD is an amazing reading where I find the Arietta very moving and transcendant. I believe there is a similar recording on CD somewhere (not part of either of the two sets mentioned above) but I haven't heard it.

Similarly I think his first set of Diabelli's is also marvellous. He's one of the few pianists who I've heard in this that give a sense of the integral, that there is a beginning a middle and an end.
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Offline George

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #7 on: October 20, 2017, 02:59:45 PM »
Like Todd, I'm not an overall fan of Arrau's Beethoven with two exceptions.

Me neither, which surprises me, as I enjoy so many of Arrau's other recordings. I only got his 60s Philips set fairly recently and have heard it once. I am hoping that it grows on me.
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Offline George

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Re: Claudio Arrau Plays Beethoven
« Reply #8 on: October 20, 2017, 03:06:22 PM »
I wrote this on another forum after my first listen to the 60s set -



Having finished a first listen to his sonatas, my impression is that although he plays these works beautifully, especially in the slow movements, the tempos are often too slow for me in the outer movements. The music comes across as lacking that youthful spark that I feel Beethoven needs. I am now most of the way through the concertos and find them to be much more successful in Arrau's hands. As always, his tone and in particular, his trills, are gorgeous. I've always loved his 4th concerto from this set (I bought a single CD of his 4th and 5th with Haitink years ago) and I am happy to finally have their complete set. The sound is warm and open, with zero noise reduction, as evidenced by the tape hiss, which is not at all intrusive.
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