We’ve had a slight gap in Ronald Brautigam’s wonderfully stimulating
Beethoven sonata series, presumably while another fortepiano was
selected for the ‘Waldstein’ which, like other later sonatas,
requires a greater range from the keyboard. Another Paul McNulty
copy has been decided on, this time based on a Conrad Graf instrument
of around 1819. It’s subtly different to the Anton Walter copy
of earlier volumes, but still a perfect choice, with its bell-like
treble, warmer mid-range and slightly – as one might expect- more
sonorous bass register.
Five sonatas sounds
a lot to get on one disc, but of course three of them are little
sonatinas of less than 10 minutes each. This does not make them
particularly slight in content, and each of them shows different
aspect of the mature Beethoven style. My own favourite is the
G major of 1809, though maybe I’m slightly biased as it brings
back memories of Associated Board exams in days gone by. It’s
a glorious little piece, full of Haydn-esque humour and quirky
little shifts in harmony. Predictably perhaps, but Brautigam
relishes starting it at quite a fast lick, perhaps taking on
board the Presto, rather than the alla tedesca marking.
It is great fun, the fortepiano sounding ideal for the fast-running
passages and cross-hand passages of the development.
The Op.78 F sharp
of the same year is another marvellously subtle work, different
in mood and tone but covering a lot of ground in its 9-odd minutes.
It’s mellower and milder, a perfect counterpart to the G major.
Here you may be thinking you’ll miss the sonority of a modern
grand in those opening chords; not a bit of it, and Brautigam
makes sure the balancing of the harmonies is not clouded or
The other ‘little’
sonata in F major from 1804 is quite a tough nut to crack. It
starts amiably before moving into what Roeland Hazendonk’s note
calls ‘the fiercely pounding, short-tempered melody’, as well
as a finale that betrays a ‘similar hard edge’. This sounds
like typical Beethoven to us, but as Hazendonk rightly points
out, his contemporaries found all this sort of writing eccentric,
though it proves meat and drink to Brautigam, who positively
revels in the mood shifts and bursts of volatile energy.
That takes us neatly
to the two ‘big’ famous sonatas on the disc. I really love the
feeling of nervous energy that Brautigam imparts in both, particularly
the ‘Waldstein’. It starts fast, but the lighter action of the
Graf copy ensures articulation is spot-on, and Brautigam’s superb
virtuosity is given free rein throughout. He is, as always,
alive to all the subtle shifts in harmonic weight and pulse,
as well as having a glorious sense of rhythmic pulse that just
sounds right to my ears. Nowhere is this more evident than in
those wonderfully vague meanderings before the development section
(around 4:25) which are controlled expertly by Brautigam. The
lighter action undoubtedly helps in the finale, especially the
notorious glissandos at 8:12, which sound absolutely effortless.
It’s a thoroughly superb overall performance, as indeed is the
‘Appassionata’. This is also faster than the maybe is the norm
– especially the variation movement - but it just grips from
start to finish. There is colour and drama, light and shade,
personality in spades, the rhythmic precision we’ve come to
expect but allied to a characterizing of the melodic lines that
takes the breath away. It sits easily alongside the best recorded
versions in my library, which I count as Barenboim (EMI), Goode
(Nonesuch) and Kempff (DG), and is probably more viscerally
exciting than any of them.
If you’re collecting
this cycle, you’ll probably already have this. If you haven’t,
and want the treat of hearing familiar music re-invented as
new before your very ears, do buy this disc. Excellent audio
quality as usual and stimulatingly different liner notes just
put the icing on the cake.