Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Seven Bagatelles Op.33 (1802) [20.04]
Eleven Bagatelles Op.119 (1820-22) [13.39]
Six Bagatelles Op.126 (1823-24) [19.17]
Allegretto quasi andante in G minor WoO61a [0.31]
Bagatelle in C major WoO56 [2.25]
Bagatelle in C minor WoO52 [4.08]
Bagatelle in B-flat minor WoO60 [1.08]
Allegretto in B minor WoO61 [2.35]
Klavierstück in A minor Für Elise WoO59 [3.26]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 26-28 July 2011
HYPERION CDA67879 [67:19]
Roughly a year ago, BIS released the tenth volume in Ronald Brautigam’s cycle of Beethoven’s complete piano works. That release met with considerable acclaim and it is the most recent recording for comparison with this new Hyperion release from Steven Osborne. Fortunately, Osborne’s performances, played on a modern Steinway, are fully the equal, and occasionally more impressive, than Brautigam.
The recital opens with Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33, the longest of which lasts under four minutes, while the shortest is a little more than a minute and a half. Yet in every piece, Beethoven’s brilliance is readily apparent. The music is by turns elegant (Nos. 1, 4 and 6), rambunctious and cheeky (No. 2), delicate and gentle (Nos. 3), and a magical fusion of inward virtuosity (Nos. 5 and 7). Osborne’s playing is always consistently incisive and responsive, each quicksilver mood change fully realized. Osborne is certainly never slow, yet Brautigam is faster in five of the seven movements:-
No. 1
No. 2
No. 3
No. 4
No. 5
No. 6
No. 7

Both pianists offer abundant personality and great technical prowess. Brautigam’s speeds are more overtly showy, while Osborne’s tease out stronger individual characterizations for each movement. I find both interpretations convincing.
The timings for the Eleven Bagatelles are more closely aligned, Brautigam taking 13.17, whereas Osborne takes 13.39. Interestingly, Misha Donat’s excellent liner-notes for the Hyperion CD reveal that Beethoven had trouble getting this set of Bagatelles published. Having sent six of them to the Peters publishing house, he received a severe reply, Peters writing that he had had the works played by several different people, none of whom could identify Beethoven as the composer! Listening to Osborne’s account, I could only wonder at what pianists Peters had hired. Surely the touchingly languid melody of Bagatelle No. 4 in A Major comes from the same compositional ether as the second movement of Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, the Pathétique? The obsession over a small melodic cell, which is the essence of Bagatelle No. 6, is clearly relatable to the first movement of Beethoven’s great fifth symphony. Nevertheless, Osborne’s delightful playing quickly dispatched these questions from my mind. The salient trait is again the wonderful character he finds in each movement. Moreover, his playing is supremely sensitive. Despite playing on a modern grand, Osborne’s attack, tone and phrasing suggest an awareness of period performance practice. Climaxes are powerfully telling, yet always remain within “classical” parameters.
The final set (Op. 126) has the most significant differences in time and overall approach between Brautigam and Osborne:-
No. 1
No. 2
No. 3
No. 4
No. 5
No. 6

This collection, which was Beethoven’s last published piano music, contains the most profound writing in any of the Bagatelle sets. In fact Beethoven, as quoted in the liner-notes, described the music as “more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written.” Brautigam again stresses the power and dramatic shifts in mood. His playing is consistently faster and more propulsive. It is undeniably thrilling. Yet in No. 3, marked Andante,Osborne’s steadier tempo allows him to tease out a tenderness that is only hinted at by Brautigam. Likewise, in the final number of the set, Osborne slows more markedly for the second tempo marking (Andante amabile e con moto), thereby establishing a more convincing difference in character for this section. This sets up a wonderful moment of shock at the end, where the tempo suddenly returns to Presto, rejecting the calm mood of the Andante to end with a disconcerting abruptness. Brautigam’s Andante amabile section is played more quickly, which minimizes the shock of this passage. While I very much enjoy Brautigam’s performance, I find Osborne’s thoughtful alternative more convincing.
Both CDs include excellent performances of miscellaneous Bagatelles that Beethoven never had published, as well as the infamous Für Elise. Both men establish the right simple atmosphere for this all too often hackneyed piece. I thought that Brautigam’s pianoforte would have an edge in producing a sotto voce sound, yet Osborne is just as captivating, with a gentle touch that produces an astonishing inwardness.
Both recordings are excellently engineered (the BIS is SACD), and include informative notes. You cannot go wrong with either CD, but such is the genius of Beethoven, that it is perhaps best to own both!  

David A. McConnell 

An astonishing inwardness.