Appearing on recordings countless times - almost literally countless when one considers the number of compilations that include only the first movement of this sonata - it is, quite naturally, difficult to name the best available recordings. The simple fact is that Beethoven's piano sonatas are beautiful, but are not easy to play well, even when (as in this case) portions of the music sound uncomplicated. (Simple things are always difficult; one is reminded of Julia Child's efforts in making perfect scrambled eggs.) Technical requirements are often more difficult than in, say, Chopin's music. Proper timing is a huge issue in all of Beethoven's works; ask anyone who has ever conducted the Ninth Symphony, or anyone who has attempted to create a definitive performance of the Moonlight Sonata.
Here are some choices to consider:
Emil Grigoryevich Gilels' 1990 recording on Deutsche Grammaphon, which also includes Piano Sonata No.12 In E-Flat Major, op 27 no.1 ("Quasi una fantasia") and Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor ("Pathétique") op. 13, would be a welcome additon to anyone's musical library. Gilels excels here in both technical and timing issues, turning in a performance that avoids common pitfalls and captures the beauty of Beethoven's music splendidly.
Speaking of welcome additions, music lovers should also consider the Complete Deutsche Grammaphon Solo Recordings of Maria-João Pires, a 20-CD set which includes a wonderful rendering of the Moonlight Sonata on Disc 2.
Interested in a historic live recording? Then give a listen to Wilhelm Backhaus's 1956 Carnegie Hall performance of both Piano Sonatas Nos. 14, "Moonlight", and 29, "Hammerklavier" on the Hänssler Profil label. One can never go wrong with Backhaus, and that is probably an understatement.
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