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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Works for Solo Piano – Vol. 2
Piano Sonatas: No.1 in F minor, Op.2 No.1 (1793-95) [16’10]; No.2 in A major, Op.2 No.2 (1793-95) [22’33]; No.3 in C major, Op.2 No.3 (1793-95) [26’44]; No.19 in G minor, Op.49 No.1 (1797) [6’55]; No.20 in G major, Op.49 No.2 (1795) [7’47]
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano by Paul McNulty, 2001 after Walther & Son c.1840)
Recorded in Österåker Church, Sweden, August 2004
BIS SACD 1363 [81’04]

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Let me nail my colours to the mast and say that, although I am a convert to period instrument performances, I have never been a fan of fortepianos, especially in music after Haydn. Even luminaries such as Melvyn Tan, Andreas Staier and Malcolm Bilson, superb players as they are, have not been able to make me enjoy hearing famous sonatas played on an instrument that at best sounds like an out-of-tune pub piano, with clattering keys and zero sustaining power.

So my surprise at the quality of the present disc is such as to make me eat my words. I had realised that Volume 1 had some very positive reviews, not least in these columns, and I have been an admirer of Brautigam’s fiery, positive playing for some time. However, it’s fair to say that my breath was taken away by the mixture of superb instrument, vital, energetic playing and crystal clear recording. First mention must be of the piano, which is one of the real stars of the show. Maybe it’s because it’s a copy, using sturdier modern materials, but action and pedal noise are virtually inaudible. The tonal range also seems far greater than anything I’ve experienced with these types of instrument before; the top has a bell-like clarity, mid-range is nice and even and the bottom end is far richer than I expected, allowing Beethoven’s daring harmonies and thunderous bass lines to jump out of the speakers with astonishing impact. The tuning and regulation appear spot-on, with the piano taking everything that Brautigam (and Beethoven) can throw at it.

All this would not really matter, of course, if the playing were limp, anodyne or just plain dull. No chance. These Op.2 sonatas were written for the young virtuoso pianist/composer to show off his gifts and Brautigam relishes the challenges they offer. Right from the start of the F minor, where Beethoven takes the Haydn-like upwards arpeggio and turns it into a gesture of defiance, we are aware of a new kid on the block in Vienna, someone who demands to be heard. Brautigam understands this, spitting out the line and its answer with an almost venomous glee. His technique is phenomenal, no doubt helped by the lighter keyboard action, so that even the most hazardous passages, such as the notorious broken octaves in the A major’s first movement (1’19, track 5) are totally accurate. Slow movements often suffer with a period piano, but not here. Brautigam chooses sensible speeds, keeping a flow and momentum without losing poetry, and the piano really behaves itself for him, with plenty of even tone and resonance. Finales have rhythmic buoyancy that is simply invigorating, as in the wonderful Rondo of the C major, where Brautigam’s refusal to rush lets the tricky embellishments be incorporated with relative ease. I have at least four complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas (Jando, Goode, Barenboim (EMI) and Kempff’s mono cycle) and have always loved these early Op.2 pieces, but I have to say even this illustrious company has not bowled me over in quite the same way as this BIS disc. I agree with Michael Holden’s Observer review that after the fire and brimstone of the Op.2s, the two little sonatas tucked away at the end are almost an anti-climax. Almost certainly written for pupils to play, and hence sounding innocent and technically undemanding, they still offer delights in the right hands. I do love Brautigam’s straight-up simplicity, letting the music do the talking, which is not to say it’s ever boring – the delightful finale of Op.49 No.2 has never sounded so lilting or lyrical.

If future discs keep up the standards of the first two, this cycle will be one to be reckoned with. At over 81 minutes it’s exceptional value anyway, but the playing is of star quality, and even the quirky artwork is being followed through. Go on – rediscover your Beethoven sonatas!

Tony Haywood






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