There's no denying that Alfred Brendel is one of the most esteemed pianists of the past half century, and Beethoven was among his particular specialties. Brendel actually recorded the complete set of 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas three times during his career (he retired from public performances in 2008), and due to his expertise and command of the piano, as well as his interpretive skill of Beethoven's works, won acclaim for each of these cycles. As with many "best of kind" performances, these sets could, unfortunately, be hideously expensive to acquire, but if one had the opportunity to enjoy them, the rewards were substantial. There's a reason why Brendel has racked up so many awards and has been received with such universal acclaim, and even the briefest of examinations of any of these recording sets reveals just why.
Brendel has a magnificent command of the instrument. It is difficult to describe his style, but I might suggest that he is a classicist in performance, meaning that he attempts to remain "true" to original composition with little distracting interpretive style, yet with a deep pathos and a seeming deftness in play that makes you forget you are listening to someone who has practiced all his life. If you had the opportunity to see Brendel perform in person, you might have noticed that his mastery of the instrument was so total that he was able even to give subtle lighthearted signals to the audience while playing while never missing a note. (Once, while seeing him perform at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he had just finished a Mozart piano sonata, and on the closing notes, made a little "trill," looked at the audience, and wiggled his eyebrows up and down in a playful grin, as if he were channeling Mozart's sense of humor. It was touching and funny, and yet, if one was simply listening, and not watching, the performance, the little "aside" would never have been noticed.) It's as if his technical performance had become detached from a second line of thought in his mind, which, I suppose, is true of many of the greatest players, but is impressive, nonetheless.
Many reviewers will rate this particular set of Brendel's performance of the 32 sonatas as his best of the three. This particular set, being the "middle" set in chronological terms (it was recorded in the 1970's on analog equipment), was completed when Brendel was beyond his early years, but still far away from the closing arc of his career. This set therefore presents a mature, yet fresh, Brendel performance of Beethoven's classic works. What I would say is that Brendel's playing here is smooth as silk, with little harshness, and, as such, it is one of the most listenable of the cycles which I've examined over the years. In fact, because Brendel here mixes technical acccuracy with a smooth yet emotive style, I prefer this as my favorite set of the 32 sonatas (and with the stiff competition for that spot, that's really saying something). These things are certainly affected by each person's opinion and preferences, but I believe there would be few who would not rate this set as among the best available today by any performer.
Here's the great thing. With the 2010 merger between Philips and Decca, this set has now been re-released (here) on the Decca label at a very reasonable price, and you can pick up the whole set much more less expensively than in year's gone by. It's an opportunity to expereince Brendel at his best, and to examine--either anew or for the first time--the acclaimed Beethoven Sonatas. I can easily recommend this as a five star rating, for performance, for recording, and for price.
Compare with ...
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas - Kempff
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas - Lewis
Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas - Ashkenazy]
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas - Barenboim
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas - Gilels