I'm fond of Alfred Brendel's Schubert, Haydn and Mozart so when I had the opportunity to pick up this newly reissued set of Beethoven sonatas for just over $30 from an Amazon reseller, I grabbed it. Since I've spent thirty-plus years with the Arrau cycle, starting with the LP's, and also had the Schnabel set in my library, I admit that I have fairly fixed ideas about what the Beethoven sonatas should sound like. Arrau, born in Chile but for the most part trained in Germany, is often called cold, detached and analytical (i.e. "Germanic") in the studio; but I think this is dead wrong. His identification with the mythic-heroic elements in Beethoven is reflected in his playing, which is full of emotional depth - sometimes so much so that it is almost difficult to listen to. Brendel, too, is often referred to as an intellectual pianist, which I suppose implies that his playing lacks emotional depth; but after listening to his survey of Beethoven sonatas, I think this assessment is also wrong. It's true that Brendel may not project the same level of suffering that Arrau sometimes finds in these scores (and this may be a relief at times), nor does he reach the celestial heights scaled by Arrau; he instead, however, favors structure and the working out of various ideas, which doesn't make him any less Beethovenian. Perhaps the best way to differentiate the two is to describe Arrau's orientation as "Romantic" whereas Brendel is more of a "Classicist."
There are many moments in these sonatas where Brendel's playing seems scaled down compared to Arrau's and you often end up thinking he's missed an opportunity to make a statement. Arrau, on the other hand, has often been accused of excessive point-making; and while Brendel too can belabor a point, he doesn't often go to Arrau's length. But it is in the process of reaching for the stars that Arrau, who may occasionally reach too far, reveals more of Beethoven's conflicted/spiritual aspects and no doubt, more of himself as well.
The sound-world of these pianists also comes into play. Arrau is plush and organ-like and while very modern in his playing still incorporates rhetorical flourishes that are reminiscent of the 19th century giants from whom he descended (Arrau's only teacher was Martin Krause, the last pupil of Liszt). This is especially evident in his traversal of the late sonatas, which to my way of thinking, has never been surpassed. Brendel is more compact, if not austere, in his playing which has a bell-like ring to it (if you could call him a descendant of anyone, it would be Kempff). Sometimes he makes a clipped ratta-tat-tat sound, as in the rondo of the Waldstein sonata, where Arrau's pianistic finish is just more sophisticated. And there is a tendency toward the finicky that can be bothersome (opp. 7 and 28 are representative). Yet Brendel's playing can also have an unsettling rattling element which makes his performance of the Moonlight sonata one of the best I've heard. This same rattling effect can be heard in the Tempest sonata, which is also excellent.
Let me say that I was prepared to be disappointed from the outset after listening to the first two sonatas (op. 2 nos. 1 & 2), which are missing the joy of early Beethoven and lend credence to the "cerebral" label so often attached to Brendel. Certainly these sonatas are well thought out, perhaps even a little too well thought out as they have a calculated feel to them. Opus 2, no. 3, on the other hand, sparkles. There are ups and downs from this point on as not everything is equally inspired - indeed, there is no ideal set of Beethoven sonatas. Sonatas no. 5 and 6 are from recitals and both succeed very well (too bad the applause wasn't edited out though). And Brendel really shines in the two op. 14 sonatas and also in op. 22. Perhaps his matter-of-fact treatment of the funeral march from the the op. 26 sonata is a little lightweight, missing the gravitas that Arrau brings to it. Missing too is the contrast that Arrau draws between this movement and the sunlit finale. His insistent finding and/or infusion of meaning is in contrast to Brendel's more straightforward approach, which doesn't lack imagination but sometimes just doesn't reach the same high level of inspiration. A case in point is the second movement of the thirteenth sonata, one of my favorites, which Brendel efficiently dispatches, but which the visionary Arrau transforms into a statement of kaleidoscopic proportions. There is simply no comparison between the two. Having said that, let me point out that Brendel is far from superficial - in fact, his sonatas are for the most part well balanced and sometimes can be a refreshing tonic to Arrau's persistent inwardness.
I was pleasantly surprised by Brendel's readings of the late sonatas. The Hammerklavier, recorded live(!), is outstanding, as is his reading of op. 101. He also turns in a fine op. 111, sounding, in fact, very much like Arrau. I was less taken with op. 109 where some of the phrasing is too plain - but I recall Harris Goldsmith calling Arrau's phrasing in the late sonatas "Furtwanglerish" (which was meant to be a pejorative) and even though his readings may border on overstatement, to me they are infused with an epic grandeur that has never been equaled.
In summary, if you are looking for a Beethoven cycle in digital sound that reflects the Kempff style of playing, then you'll be satisfied with Brendel.