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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete works for Solo Piano Vol.3

Sonata No.4 in E flat major, Op.7 (1796-7) [28:52]
Sonata No.5 in C minor, Op.10 No.1 (1795-8) [17:10]
Sonata No.6 in F major, Op.10 No.2 (1795-8) [11:37]
Sonata No.7 in F major, Op.10 No.3 (1795-8) [22:35]
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
rec. Österåker Church, Sweden, August 2004. DDD
BIS-SACD-1472 [81:35]

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Here is Volume 3 of Ronald Brautigam’s fascinating fortepiano survey of the Beethoven Sonatas. It follows straight on from the previous disc and the recording information reveals that these pieces were in fact recorded in the same 2004 session. For anyone collecting the series, this simply means that recording quality is the same excellent standard, the superb instrument is the same and Brautigam’s pianism is equally enthralling.

I gave the previous disc a very warm welcome, as much for the sound of Paul McNulty’s Walther-copy piano as anything. Here again I was struck afresh by the beautiful bell-like quality of the upper register, the even middle and powerful bass, all superbly exploited by Brautigam. These are once more thoroughly exciting, utterly musical performances that make you hear this music afresh but not in a sensationalist or gimmicky way. Tempos are generally fresh and lively, with slow movements moving on more than we are perhaps used to but never sounding rushed or hard driven. Having said that, the lyrical first movement of the E flat opens in a quite relaxed fashion, maybe not quite as con brio as, say, Barenboim (EMI) but full of inner vigour and élan. It’s the sort of performance that is beautifully proportioned and even makes one bring to mind the somewhat apocryphal title ‘Die Verliebte’, especially the strong emotional pull of the slow movement.

I was slightly dismissive of Andras Schiff’s recent ECM disc of the three Op.10 sonatas, finding too many distortions in the phrase lines that might have impressed in concert but irritated on repeated listening. Brautigam plays things admirably straight, simply using the tensions and contrasts that are there in the music and playing them for all they are worth. That’s not to say he’s ever prosaic and the crystalline fingerwork and explosive attacks are all there, tempered by a graceful approach to slow movements. These are nearly all generally quicker than ‘conventional’ performances and this is the area where some may part company with my view. The largo of the D major is just about twice the speed of Barenboim but to my ears it never feels breathless. It is also here where the delicate sheen of the fortepiano comes into its own, the harmonies emerging with a transparency that is enchanting. The little Haydnesque F major is beautifully despatched and I’m sure the lighter touch on the instrument helps Brautigam achieve the near-impossible sounding tempo, a true presto, of the finale, once again making us imagine the young Beethoven sat improvising and stunning his audience.

This is another highly successful issue, maintaining the high standards set by the previous discs. Of course it will not –and should not - displace your favourite ‘modern’ piano versions, but will sit comfortably alongside them as a fresh new take on these evergreen masterpieces, rather as Harnoncourt or Gardiner should sit alongside Karajan or Klemperer in the symphonies. For me, Richard Goode remains supreme in this area, his wonderfully ‘straight’ playing ideal for the library shelves. I’ve also mentioned Barenboim’s first admirable cycle for EMI, now at a ludicrously low price and containing some very thought-provoking ideas, especially in the later sonatas. BIS’s liner note is as entertaining as the playing, drawing at one point an amusing analogy between Beethoven and his aristocratic audience and Princess Diana and Elton John, something worth pondering on. If you’re collecting this cycle you can continue with confidence.

Tony Haywood


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