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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete Piano Variations

Variations: Kk. 24, 25, Anh.138a/547a, 179, 180, 264, 265, 352, 353, 354, 398, 455, 460, 500, 573, 613, Adagio in b minor K. 540, Fantasia in d minor K. 397, Gigue K. 574, Klavierstück K. 33B, Marche funebre del Sig. Maestro Contrapunto K. 453a, Modulating Prelude K.VI (missing), Overture (Suite) K. 399, Prelude (Capriccio) K. 284a/395), Prelude and Fugue in C K. 394, Rondos: Kk. 485, 511
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
Recorded at Länna Church, Sweden, August 1997
BIS CD-1266/1267 [4 CDs: 60.37, 63.07, 61.37, 61.21]


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Brautigam has already recorded the complete Mozart sonatas (BIS-CD-835/837) and, as you can see, although this is called "Complete Piano Variations" it actually slips in along the way (the discs are arranged in listenable sequences, not as above) most but not all of the miscellaneous pieces. I find this a little strange. Having got this far Brautigam presumably wishes to finish recording all Mozartís piano music and the pieces left over Ė a handful of sonata allegros, a few minuets and a small number of odds and ends Ė hardly amount to a full CD (it would be churlish, when this box is being offered at 4 CDs for the price of 2, to suggest that there might have been room for them here, for the timings are not all that long). So why not finish the job then and there?

Compared with most recordings of the variations, this includes K. Anh. 138a, usually known as part of the Sonata K. 547a (but not included in Brautigamís sonata recordings). The very informative booklet notes go into this in some detail, but not so much as to explain why my Peters edition has an additional variation and a coda not played here.

The instrument used was made in 1992 by Paul McNulty in Amsterdam, following a model of Anton Gabriel Walter of c. 1795. There are times when listening to a fortepiano provokes the irreverent consideration that, were I to record a programme on my auntieís old upright and palm it off as a fortepiano, no one would know the difference. I think it is the richness of the harmonics which proclaim the present as an instrument of very high quality (and it responds to recording in a church as pianos almost never do). The many, many brilliant pieces here have a really exciting sound, with something of a harpsichord ping to the lower register, tempered with sweetness in the upper notes. Listen to the two presto sections in the D minor Fantasia where rapid scales cover the whole range of the keyboard to hear what a splendidly voiced instrument this is (and what a splendidly even touch Brautigam has). My notes are full of comments such as "a splendid display", so once for all Iíll quote K. 613 as a set of variations which shows pianist and instrument at their full-blooded best. (Note also the covered tone obtained for the minor-key variation). No less effective are the more delicate, musical-box sonorities of K. 573, while the chords of the funeral march for Sig. Maestro Contrapunto are strikingly rich without heaviness.

If I now have to make a few reservations, it should be remembered that most of the music here is of a brilliant, virtuosic nature and my reservations therefore regard a minority of the pieces.

Where grace is called for, as in the last part of the D minor fantasia or the D major rondo, Brautigam remains obstinately firm toned and rather heavy. By the same token K. 455 is somewhat perfunctory. One of the advantages of the fortepiano over the piano is supposed to be that chords from the middle register down donít sound clumpy. Unfortunately the accompaniment to the principal theme of the A minor rondo shows that they do if the pianist does nothing to unclump them (whereas Rubinstein with his modern Steinway reduces his accompaniment to a gentle pulsation). A melody line tied down by an obtrusively chugging accompaniment tends to be a liability in slow pieces and variations. I noticed this first in the 11th variation of K. 353, and the Adagio in B minor is a long haul indeed. Brautigam seems to find it difficult to liberate his melodies from their accompaniments as we are told Mozart himself did, though to be fair I did make a note that he managed to voice the different layers of texture very successfully in the slow variation of K. 264. I also noted in the freer variations of K. 613 a degree of spontaneity which is not always present elsewhere.

So what does this add up to? Brautigamís brilliance and enthusiasm, as well as the instrument itself, are just what is needed most of the time. Perhaps he will now record some of the concertos and seek out that depth and spontaneity which he seems capable of, but does not yet have completely on tap, as it were.

Christopher Howell


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