Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations Op.120 [48.26]
6 National Airs with Variations Op.105 [18.18]
Ronald Brautigam fortepiano
rec. Österåker Church, Sweden , August 2015, Original format PCM 24bit/96kHz
Reviewed in surround 5.0 BIS SACD BIS-1943 [67.34]
Brautigam tops off his Beethoven cycle, Volume 15, with one of the greatest works of them all, the Diabelli Variations. Oddly, the only significant works he has not yet recorded on one of his fortepianos are the five concertos. I do wonder why not because I would buy them immediately and surely I am not alone. Here he uses a copy by Paul McNulty of an instrument built by Conrad Graff in 1822, his Op.423 model. It is one of these that Graf built specially for Beethoven in 1826. It could not be more authentic.
The history is well known. Diabelli touted his theme around multiple composers and received lots of variations from the best-known of his day, along with one 12 year old called Franz Liszt. Beethoven, initially hesitant, took the task extremely seriously and a handful of years later handed over no less than 33 variations, composed for continuous performance and lasting around 50 minutes. They are still probably the greatest set of keyboard variations since Bach's Goldberg set. Diabelli was reported to be very pleased!
There are 117 recordings in the current catalogue, according to Presto Classical. I admit I only have three of them to compare, none on a fortepiano. No two pianists are going to sound alike in this most wide-ranging of works. Every one of Beethoven's thirty-three variations is a little gem. Some are apparently so simple, others are the result of a profound insight into the potential of Diabelli's jaunty creation. If one listens to several performances in succession, as a reviewer must sometimes do, what emerges is not the ability to put the versions in order of achievement, that would be a nonsense, it is a sense of increasing wonder at Beethoven's genius in giving such a big work an overall structure. One's attention simply does not waver. In addition to three plays of this disc, I listened to Hans Richter Haaser (EMI) and Alfred Brendel's live recording at the Festival Hall (Philips). In this august company Ronald Brautigam stands as an equal in quality whilst sounding not remotely like either of them. I am very attracted by the period fortepiano; this disc must sound much as contemporaries of the composer heard it, not Beethoven himself of course, because by this time he was deaf. The Graf used is smaller and more clangourous than a modern piano but already quite far from the small domestic keyboards used just a decade or so earlier. McNulty's website notes that this Graf weighs in at 151kg, whereas a Walter of 1790 is a much lighter 90kg. To put this in perspective, a modern Steinway Model D is 480kg. Every lover of the Diabelli Variations ought to add a period performance to their collection. This one will do very well.
As a filler BIS have added the 6 National Airs with Variations Op.105, a set of pieces Beethoven wrote a year before he started the Diabelli. They are a very interesting series, each tune varied several times in a matter of between 2 and 5 minutes. Beethoven wrote an extraordinary number of these sets, so by this time he was a total master. Whilst not as astonishing as the main work, this eighteen minute piece is well worth one’s time.
The quality of music-making is high and one is not much distracted by technical matters, but it is worth mentioning that BIS have recorded Brautigam a little closer than they might. The piano fills the space from front left to front right, rather than the piano sounding as if it were placed centrally and a little distance away from the listener. As a result the upper strings of the piano always sound rather to the left. I listened several times to check - this was really the case. Apart from that, the detailing and dynamic range are up to the usual very high standard. The notes by Roeland Hazendonk are detailed and interesting.