Ronald Brautigam could easily have overlooked these early unpublished
works in his survey of Beethoven's piano music, but his fans
will be grateful that he didn't. It's not the greatest music
in the world, but that hasn't stopped the pianist preparing
and presenting the works with the same level of care and dedication
that he brings to the mature music. And the high-end audio is
put to good use reproducing the nuanced textures of the fortepiano.
The three 'Kurfürsten Sonatas' are the main offering here.
The musical language of each of them is well within the rigorous
formulaic conventions of the late 18th century, so
if continual use of Alberti bass and whimsical cadential ornaments
makes your teeth grate, this might not be for you. On the other
hand, the sheer life that Brautigam brings to this music transcends
all the conventions. He finds wonderful humour in many of the
movements, as if they were the work of a younger and less self-conscious
The dynamic range that the fortepiano offers is surprising.
Sure, it doesn't have the very loudest sonorities of a modern
grand, but it has just about everything else. Brautigam really
makes the most of these dynamic possibilities, often articulating
the structure of a movement through the subtlest of gradations
in crescendos or answering phrases. The bass end of the instrument
is a little boxy, as you might expect, but Beethoven never demands
more from his left hand figurations than the instrument can
deliver. And again the high quality audio ensures that nothing
in the middle or bass register is every obscured.
The 'Zwei Sätze einer Sonatine' may be familiar to former
piano students, who'll have come across them at about the grade
6 level. I did myself, but they never sounded like this when
I played them. Brautigam again delivers a performance filled
with bounce and vitality. So too in the '2 Leichte Sonatinen'
and the 'Zwei Stücke für Klavier (Orphika)'. The justification
for skipping these last two works in a Beethoven piano survey
is even stronger, the former are only tentatively attributed
to the composer, while the later was written for a completely
different instrument. (The orphica was apparently a kind of
small spinet.) Again, the performances are first rate. The music
of these fragments and short movements is slightly more liberated
from the stylistic conventions, at least in terms of texture,
which ranges from the monophonic to the heavily chordal. There
are no memorable melodies to speak of though, and it is easy
to find yourself marvelling at the sound of the instrument and
forgetting all about what is being played on it.
And you really can't forget that this is a fortepiano. The sound
is as civilised as you could hope from such an instrument, but
it still has a certain rustic colour. Brautigam is conservative
with his pedalling, or rather with his kneeing, as he is using
a sustaining knee lever under the keyboard. But even with more
knee, I suspect the instrument would produce a fairly dry sound.
Fortunately, it is in the safe hands of the BIS engineers, who
by volume 9 of this project have really mastered the instrument's
recording potential. In lesser hands, the sound could seem distant
and uninvolving, but here the fortepiano has a real presence.
It's almost like having the instrument in front of you. Repertoire-wise,
this wouldn't be my first choice from the Brautigam Beethoven
cycle, but in terms of performance and recording it is the equal
of any of its predecessors.