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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Works for Solo Piano: Vol. 5
Sonata No.16 in G major, Op.31 No.1 (1802) [23:14]
Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘Der Sturm’ (1802) [22:18]
Sonata No.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 (1802) [21:13]
Ronald Brautigam (McNulty fortepiano after Anton Walther)
rec. Österåker Church, Sweden, August 2005
BIS BIS-SACD-1572 [67:49]

Ronald Brautigam continues his excellent chronological traversal of the Beethoven Sonatas with the three gems Op.31. The works all come from the troubled summer of 1802 and the best known is probably the central D minor, nicknamed ‘Der Sturm’, or ‘The Tempest’ as we know it, after a remark supposedly made by the composer to a pupil. Brautigam’s performance is one of the few I can recall that give some credence to the title; Jando and Kovacevich also spring to mind.
It’s not that there’s anything remotely controversial about the readings, I’m glad to say. It’s more that Brautigam is continuing to give us the notes, free of distortion and mannerism of the sort that seem to be creeping into Schiff’s ECM cycle – try the first movement of his recent ‘Moonlight’ to see what I mean. Brautigam simply enjoys choosing a sensible tempo, often brisk but never aggressively so and combining superb articulation and grasp of dynamics, just lets the music unfold naturally. Of course, he is helped immeasurably by Paul McNulty’s little masterpiece of an instrument, which Brautigam has been using for some years and which has surely shaped and influenced his approach. The tonal palette is amazing for a piano that looks relatively small and fragile, and time and again the characteristic ‘zing’ of the tone just seems top suit the music so perfectly.

Throughout the D minor I was brought up short, as if hearing the music for the first time. The voicing of that opening arpeggio, which becomes almost a motto figure in the work, lacks the massive sustaining power of a Steinway but takes on a different timbre here, with that raspy, coloured edge that then quickly fades. The rapid passagework that follows is brilliant in every sense and the attack on the sforzando chords is nothing short of hair-raising. He maintains a clear line in the adagio and even those little ‘timpani’ rumblings that permeate the movement, which one might suspect would be weakened here, have plenty of presence and effect. The finale is a thrilling tour-de-force of dexterity but never in a ‘look at me’ fashion – Brautigam could never, it seems to me, be this sort of artist.
Things get even better in the cheeky little E flat sonata, a piece chock full of gruff humour and post-Haydn japes, what Roeland Hazendonk’s note calls ‘the musical equivalent of a puppy breaking loose in an over-enthusiastic run through the fields’. Brautigam’s playing is brimming with character, from the grace and lightness of the vivace scherzo, the lovely song-like menuetto to the hell-for-leather finale, marked typically presto con fuoco and really played that way. The piano copes amazingly with some of the things Brautigam throws at it – listen to those explosive fortissimo chords in the scherzo, and any thoughts of a dainty little antique are blown away!
The deceptive G major sonata is just as good as the rest, with too many excellent things to list – though I especially loved Brautigam’s handling of the embellished sextuplet lines in the adagio, surely another case where the light action helps the pianist serve the music perfectly.
As you have gathered, I love this disc and it’s hardly been out of the player since it arrived. This series is gathering critical praise as it unfolds and even though we are only at Volume 5, I can but add my thanks to BIS, Paul McNulty and Ronald Brautigam for giving us such stimulating and thought-provoking Beethoven. I’ve said in the past that it feels as if the composer were in the room with you, and looking at the booklet photograph of Brautigam, he’s even beginning to resemble the great man in looks. Roll on the rest!
Tony Haywood

Reviews of other releases in this series
Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4


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