. . . Barenboim's mature presence and authority cast a very different, and far more intimate, spell. Serving as both pianist and conductor, Barenboim delivers a double whammy -- phrasing and weight are gauged exactly to his specifications. The Staatskapelle Berlin (the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera) is a chamber-sized ensemble of just about 30 musicians, but there's nothing small or precious about these performances. Barenboim takes a sculpted, muscular approach to the concertos, and the moments he creates are quite poignant. Take, for example, the poignant narrative he and his musicians create in the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto. The orchestra bears down in full, fierce darkness on the piano's still, small light -- and the last moments are utterly heartbreaking. As befits Beethoven, it's not all darkness, though. Graciousness and joy flood the uptempo movements, as in the concluding Rondo of the Concerto No. 1. In a more driving performance, it's easy for the soloist to lose track of the main theme's good humor and lightness, but Barenboim brings out its good humor. The sound is very, very present -- you'll feel like you're sitting right amidst the orchestra players . . . If you like to hear all the small details of a performance rather than a fuzzy, warm wash of sound, this engineering will please you.
The First and Second are energetic pieces with hearts of gold. Barenboim gives them majestic, unhurried performances to search out the music's numerous possibilities. These works have been lifelong passions for him and he directs his Berlin orchestra in a way designed to communicate that passion.
The first thing to strike the listener is the wide recording range and involving soundstage. The orchestra is superb, too, with a gloriously warm sound, and Barenboim's rapport with the players is palpable . . . Barenboim projects the melodies of the slow movements to perfection (try No 1's Largo, for instance, with its superb sense of dialogue). If No 2's orchestral exposition sounds almost Mozartian, it is to match Barenboim's grace and clarity of articulation . . . No 5, full of energy and depth, is its crowning glory.
. . . this set has a welcome sense of freshness . . . the concertos no. 3 and no. 4 sound terrific . . . [Beethoven 1 & 2]: the playing is terrific and the wind detail is distinguished . . . the overall package is worth having, even if you've heard these works over and over again.