No Todd thread so for once I get first dibs on a Beethoven cycle :p
Kazune Shimizu's first set of the Beethoven sonatas for Sony Japan was recorded from 1994 to 1997 and is very unavailable, most of the volumes only offered as expensive used copies and some of them simply not on the market. A reissue is unlikely seeing as he's now re-recording the cycle for Triton/Octavia. That said, it is evidently floating around in shareable form (contact me for more details).
Based on the listening I've done, I see this cycle as superior to his new recordings, at least in the ones he's released so far. I will try to explain why with some quick notes on the sonatas.
Volumes 1 through 6 are organised on the basis of loose key relations, as is the first 75% of Volume 7. From there onwards he seems to have just presented the remaining sonatas in order of composition. Recordings are supposed to be taken from live performances, but the absence of slips and audience noise suggests some amount of studio editing afterwards—the one thing that is a noticeable live artefact is a not-always-clean use of pedal, plus applause at the end of a handful of sonatas.Vol. 1
No. 1, Op. 2/1 - A surprisingly muted and low-key performance, not an extremely auspicious start to the cycle. Perhaps a deliberate choice to bring out the melancholy/Mozartian elements of the work, at the expense of the revolutionary, assertive ones. Or maybe it was just an off day for him. I give it a C-.
No. 13, Op. 27/1 - On the other end of things: an excellent performance of this often problematic work, maybe the best I've heard. Has much of the energy and spirit that was missing from Op. 2/1. Not that I've heard a lot, or listen to it very frequently, though. A+
No. 8, Op. 13 - Suitably dramatic, swift but with some weight to it, and some quite expressive playing. Very good although probably doesn't blow away the competition. B+
No. 31, Op. 110 - A very good "bread and butter" performance of the sonata—nothing is very far outside the mainstream, and there's not much individuality, but it has a certain rightness to it that's very satisfying. A-Vol. 2
No. 2, Op. 2/2 - Another standout performance, near perfect in many respects. Has the grace and sensitivity the sonata needs, without ever tipping into being anodyne. Shimizu misses out on the controversial and probably unnecessary second half repeat in the first movement. A+
No. 9, Op. 14/1 - A fairly spirited and lively take on a sonata that's not usually that. It's good, but I feel like there's room for more depth. B
No. 27, Op. 90 - He kind of tries to fit each movement into one single mood. Which, to be fair, is often done, and tempting to do with this sonata, but like, this is still Beethoven. Also, the playing does come pretty close to typing. C-
No. 28, Op. 101 - Another solid "bread and butter" performance that perhaps doesn't quite reach the transcendence of Op. 110. Emotional weight & lightness are well distributed, and it is in the end a satisfying listen. B+Vol. 3
No. 24, Op. 78 - I wasn't expecting much after finding Op. 90 disappointing, but this is a very nice performance with lots of inner life and vitality. A
No. 4, Op. 7 - Resembles the Op. 106 (infra) in being clean and somewhat emotionally detached, without much humour, combining weight with a staccato touch. Playing Op. 7 like Op. 106 does kind of
make sense as they are sometimes considered the two most technically difficult of Beethoven's sonatas, though Op. 106 obviously is ahead by a pretty wide margin. A substantial performance, worth revisiting. A-
No. 11, Op. 22 - Straightforward, sober sonata gets a straightforward, sober reading. Tempi are on the faster side, comparable to Kovacevich, who plays with more power—and is probably more essential—but less clarity. Overall it's definitely to my taste but I would prefer more grace and poise to the rondo. B+
No. 26, Op. 81a - I've heard deeper, more ambiguous performances, particularly of the first movement, which is a bit unmemorable. There's nothing wrong
with it I guess though. Competition is just fierce. B-Vol. 4
No. 20, Op. 49/2 - It's unfair to expect much from this sonatina, designed for beginners to play. Its primary musical value is a certain freshness and grace and Shimizu brings those qualities to the fore well. A
No. 7, Op. 10/3 - I had pretty high expectations and they were basically met. This is one of the sonatas I've played myself and I was thinking most of the time "yeah, this is pretty much how I'd want to have done it". Not that that means much coming from me as opposed to someone who can actually play the piano, but I approve and would only have suggested slightly more weight and heroism. A+
No. 29, Op. 106 - I already wrote a bit about this: clean, decisive, swift, detached, somewhat analytical. There is room for more expression in the adagio, and the first movement is more athletic than joyful, but repeated listens have improved its standing with me overall. B+Vol. 5
No. 10, Op. 14/2 - I've heard this piece done with more humour, more character, and/or more energy. A bit too undistinguished here. C
No. 3, Op. 2/3 - Has some of the heroism Op. 10/3 didn't have, and even some unexpected profundity. The slow movement here is particularly fine. Another standout. A+
No. 25, Op. 79 - Enjoyable, although the first movement is a bit of a headlong rush—not much space is given for the music to breathe. The other two movements are fine (although, admittedly, hard to screw up). B+
No. 21, Op. 53 - A performance that rewards careful listening, with a light touch and a lot
of subtlety and reserve. For me it actually does work though. I do often like Waldsteins that are less heroic and extraverted, and have a bit of depth to them. This is definitely one such performance... not necessarily displacing existing favourites but still really good. AVol. 6
No. 6, Op. 10/2 - Mostly excellent. Shimizu leaves out the second half repeat in the short finale, which to my ears is necessary, and therefore forces me to deduct points. That said, the two minutes of finale we do get are among the best of his cycle. A-
No. 12, Op. 26 - The funeral march is intentionally somewhat grotesque, so it's interesting to hear the grotesque elements downplayed in the interests of pathos. It's effective, although feels a little manipulative. Rest of the sonata is top notch. A
No. 5, Op. 10/1 - Hard-driven and tinged with a little melancholy. Maybe a little on the Romantic side for Shimizu, but never mellow. A-
No. 23, Op. 57 - A really high quality Appassionata with as much power, energy and pathos as one would want. Tempi are also just about perfect. A+Vol. 7
No. 19, Op. 49/1 - See comments on Op. 49/2 (supra). I do think a little more could be made of this sonatina, actually, but it's over quickly enough that one doesn't mind much either way. B
No. 15, Op. 28 - First movement is weak, and the music doesn't breathe. This sonata was a quiet revolution in Beethoven's creative life, and it should sound like one. Remaining three movements are much better but due to the apparent missed point, I can't give this more than a C+.
No. 16, Op. 31/1 - This is excellent—maybe lacks the spark of humour that animates the best recordings, but still pretty damn good. A-
No. 14, Op. 27/2 - First movement tempo is pretty much exactly where I prefer it (4:53) although I would prefer a little more flexibility and quieter playing. And a bit more delicacy in the second movement. Dynamic contrast isn't really Shimizu's thing. BVol. 8
No. 17, Op. 31/2 - A very high quality performance—I've heard better, but no real complaints with this one. The best performances probably have a bit more immediacy, is all. A-
No. 18, Op. 31/3 - Maybe a bit more aggressive than this sonata should be? It works very nicely in the even-numbered movements though, and the minuet is a bit more restrained. I feel like I'm going to end up enjoying this performance a lot. A
No. 22, Op. 54 - Solid middle of the road performance, maybe a bit short on subtleties and nuances but certainly high in energy. B+
Rondo, Op. 51 - As nice a performance as I've ever heard of this not very inspiring piece >_> AVol. 9
No. 30, Op. 109 - I'd probably have a higher opinion of this one if I hadn't just heard Maria Tipo's recording of the same for EMI, which is flat out better in every respect as well as more imaginative. That said, this isn't bad for a mainstream reading, though a more profound and hushed third movement would have been nice. B+
No. 32, Op. 111 - First movement has a couple of noticeable recurring mannerisms, which I do not mind. It certainly has the requisite weight and gravitas. Second movement starts out amiable and graceful but rather unexpectedly ends up scaling the heavenly heights and achieving a very moving closure. I'm honestly a bit impressed. A
Bagatelles, Op. 126 - Beautiful, if not extremely characteristic performances, although maybe Op. 111 just put me in a good mood. A-
My overall score for the cycle would be a B+. Potential points of comparison in terms of quality might include András Schiff and Igor Levit, from my perspective. Potential stylistic comparisons might include Paul Lewis, Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel, Mélodie Zhao or Claude Frank, though I prefer Shimizu to all of them save the last-named. I probably don't know enough cycles to make detailed pronouncements one way or another though.
From what I've heard, the newer recordings on Triton are slower, safer, more metronomic, and in worse sound. I would not rate the Triton Appassionata or Tempest above a B for instance.
If you're still not sure whether you ought to embark on the months-long quest for used copies and/or the minutes-long quest to download a file from the internet, here's the finale of Op. 27/1 for an example.
If you do
decide you need to hunt down physical copies, hopefully my notes give you some ideas of which volumes to seek out first. <_<