Volume 11 of Ronald Brautigam’s superb recordings of Beethoven on fortepiano brings us to his sets of variations, a form which he used more than any other. We have the Diabelli Variations
to look forward to, but this programme represents a cross-section of a significant part of the composer’s development.
The prospect of an entire programme of variations may not entice, and this is indeed a disc into which you can dip without feeling too guilty. A whole sitting will do you no harm however, and I found myself fascinated from beginning to end. Classical variation form can be a mildly frustrating kind of music to experience. The music traditionally remains in the same key throughout, and there is always a kind of mental anticipation of which the listener may not even be really conscious – where anticipation of the next treatment of the same melody is challenged and not necessarily satisfied by the composer’s solution. Beethoven’s variations do however have plenty of ‘wow’ factor, and even with the earliest examples there is always at least one moment of complete tonal or technical surprise. Ronald Brautigam’s playing heightens this sense of exploratory discovery, and we can sense more than ever that, without Beethoven, later composers such as Brahms and Rachmaninov would have been a good deal less likely to reach the results they did in their own approach to this form.
The first six sets are played on an instrument modelled on one from 1805. This has a ringing tone and fine sonorities, but as the first minutes of the Zwölf Variationen
WoO71 show, runs and dynamic extremes are all features which can be shown to spectacular effect. Beethoven’s sources for his themes in these earlier variations is a subject in its own right, but with the original melodic lines being taken for such remarkable flights of inventiveness the subtitles cease to have much more than historic interest and impact. Fashionable Viennese works and topics such as the Turkish conflict emerge, and are delivered and transformed into worlds of bold technique and wit beyond most of what was being written by other composers at the same time.
The penultimate work, Sechs Variationen über ein eigenes Thema G-dur WoO77
, is a spinoff of the final rondo of Beethoven’s Op.22 piano sonata, but it is of course the Eroica Variations
, the only set in this collection to be given an opus number, which is the revolutionary masterpiece we’ve all been waiting for. It is played here on a later fortepiano model from 1819, and the thicker strings of this instrument creates an immediate defining line between this and the other works. This is a darker and richer sound, not less nimble than the 1805 model, but with the harmonics drawn down more towards the middle register, and with a sturdy and rumbling bass when those particular buttons are pushed hard enough. Beethoven pushes the sense of drama in this music, opening enigmatically with that bass line rather than the main theme, passing through some remarkable extremes of irony, rage and beauty, and ultimately building to slower variations of extravagant intensity and a magnificent penultimate fugue. This was written not long after the troubling period which culminated in the ‘Heiligenstadt testament’, and we know all about it by the end of this piece.
There’s an odd moment at 8:15 in the Zehn Variationen WoO73
which you might think is an editing mistake, but in the score Beethoven does go forte
in a strikingly subito
way, straight from pianissimo
, right in the middle of a phrase. The extreme change on the recording is Brautigam’s decision to use the damper in the preceding decrescendo, suddenly released at this point. I have no idea if there is any scholarly argument as to whether this is a misprint or not, but it does sound stranger than usual here.
I may be wrong, but it would appear that recordings of the Erioca Variations
on fortepiano are something of a rarity. I haven’t managed to find much in the way of competition in this field, but with such convincing performances this is a top class recording and beats many if not most on your full-force concert grand. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Seta Tanyel’s
recording, but this performance by Ronald Brautigam is in a different league. To my mind he has just the right proportions of dynamic drama and contrast, and is certainly not overly theatrical like the otherwise admirable Michael Korstick on Oehms Classics. BIS’s SACD sonics are superb, and with the usual accessible and informative booklet notes by Roeland Hazendonk this is something of a highlight even of Brautigam’s brilliant Beethoven.