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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Variations, Bagatelles and Clavierstücke
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
rec. 2010-15, Österåker Church, Sweden
BIS BIS-2403 SACD [6 discs: 409:23]

This is the second box set of Beethoven’s piano music played by Roland Brautigam to be released by Bis. The first contained the complete piano sonatas (BIS-2000 SACD) and the companion set contains the five piano concertos. I have only a single disc of Brautigam performing Beethoven, which is volume 2 of the sonatas (BIS-SACD-1363) in this edition of the complete piano music; this set offers volumes 10 to 15. I must say that if this represents the standard of presentation for the set of sonatas it will certainly be moving up my ‘watch list’, as rather than a new single booklet where the notes from the original releases are cobbled together and abridged, here each of these wonderful hybrid SACDs is presented with its original booklet: six discs, six booklets. This means that each disc has its original detailed notes along with the biography of each of the wonderful instruments employed in this edition, for which BIS should be applauded.

What this box set offers to the listener is some miniature masterpieces alongside excellence in the art of variation writing, with each disc having something to recommend it. The opening disc, volume ten in the complete edition, presents the collected Bagatelles, some thirty-seven in total, many more than you find played by Alfred Brendel in Brilliant Classics’ Complete Beethoven Edition (95510), and other stand-alone discs of these short pieces. This is explained in the booklet, which argues that no one really knows how many of these short pieces were destined to be actual bagatelles, as Beethoven published only twenty-four such pieces in his Opp. 33, 119 and 126 sets. So, for this disc Ronald Brautigam has collected together those pieces which fulfil the criteria to be considered as bagatelles, as well as the few named pieces which were never published in the composer’s lifetime, including what is probably his most often performed piece, the A minor Bagatelle WoO 59, known as ‘Für Elise’. This is not the only highlight amongst these pieces, as there are many mini-treasures here if you venture past the famous one.

The second and third discs in the set offer the early sets of variations. In my review of the Brilliant Beethoven edition, I mentioned that some of these sets were new to me, and that I was most impressed with the playing of Alessandro Commellato. Here, Brautigam plays these on copies of a Walter instrument similar to that used by Commellato; however, here, the piano seems to have a bit more depth to it than that used by Brilliant, resulting in a more sonorous experience throughout. On the second disc, I really enjoyed the performance of Zehn Variationen, WoO73 on a theme by Salieri, but it is the Fünfzehn Variationen mit einer Fuge Es-Dur, Op.35, the ‘Eroica’ Variations, with its theme from Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus similar to that he used in his Symphony No. 3, that steals the spotlight. Here, Brautigam swaps to a copy of a Graff piano which lends that extra bit of heft to the performance. Of disc three, the standout work is the Vierundzwanzig Variationen, WoO 65, a set of 24 variations on Righini's Arietta ‘Venni amore’, which are super.

For the thirteenth volume of the edition, the fourth disc in this box set, Ronald Brautigam turns away from variations, concentrating instead on the rondos and Klavierstück. It contains the famous Rondo a capriccio in G major, Op.129 or the “Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio”, more famously known as “The Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice”. Here the Hungarian, or ‘Gypsy’ character of the music comes through well, especially on the Walter copy - more so, I think, than on a modern grand piano. We are then treated to an alternative to Beethoven’s most performed piece, the Klavierstück ‘Für Elise’, which is here a minute longer than in the bagatelle version.

For the final two discs we return again to variation form coupled with the remaining pieces of solo piano music. The penultimate volume presents both sets of ‘English’ variations, first in the form of the Sieben Variationen über “God save the King”, then in the Fünf Variationen über “Rule Britannia”, both given a really spirited and committed performance here, the best I have heard. However, it is the Sechs Variationen in D major on “Die Ruinen von Athen”, a firm favourite of mine for a long time, which deserves all the plaudits here, in a performance which shines. The disc concludes with a group of other short pieces including the Dreistimmige Fuge and a couple of waltzes which round the disc off well.

On the final disc, we get Beethoven’s finest set of piano variations, the monumental “Diabelli Variations”. The 33 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli was composed between 1819 and 1823 and is seen as the highpoint of the art form. Donald Tovey thought it the finest set of variations ever written, whilst Alfred Brendel goes one further, calling it, “the greatest of all piano works”. The work is just sublime, and the performance matches it; you would think that being performed on the Graff copy the instrument would be lacking a little, but no, the heft is again there. It cannot compare to a modern grand piano, but there is enough here to satisfy all but the most ardent of fortepiano haters. I personally put this performance alongside my favourite performances on a modern grand. The disc concludes in a much lighter vein, with the Six National Airs with Variations. This group of variations on Welsh, Scottish, Austrian and Irish folk tunes is quite charming, and in the last couple of Irish tunes brings a humorous, if complicated, conclusion to this disc and the set as a whole.

This is a wonderful set, in which Ronald Brautigam excels in his conclusion to his survey of the complete solo piano music of Beethoven. I appreciate that some people do not like the sound of the fortepiano, but the instruments chosen for this set and edition as a whole, show the breadth of sound that was available at the time, and some people will be surprised by just how full a sound it is. Brautigam’s choice of tempos is well-measured and thoughtful, and his playing is nuanced throughout, resulting in this set being one that I have found difficult to take off my CD player. The performances certainly mark Brautigam out as a leading interpreter of Beethoven’s music regardless of the style and type of piano used.

The recorded sound on these hybrid SACDs, which also plays on standard CD players, is natural and warm, the crystal-clear acoustic helping to give it a very natural feel. Each of the six CD booklets included in this set offers detailed and informative notes, and once again it is good to have the original release booklets with their depiction of the street names from around the world that depict Beethoven’s name. This set marks a substantial addition to the catalogue of Beethoven’s recorded works, especially as we approach the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Stuart Sillitoe 

Disc 1 (BIS-SACD-1882) [71:07]
Sieben Bagatellen Op. 33 (1802) [18:53]
Bagatelles (1795-1804)
Allegretto in C minor Hess 69 (c. 1797) [3:06]
Bagatelle in C major, Hess 73 (1800) [0:23]
Bagatelle in E flat major, Hess 74 (1800) [0:20]
Allegretto in C minor, WoO 53 (1796-98) [3:19]
Andante in C major (1792-95) [0:59]
Bagatelle in C major, WoO 54, 'Lustig-Traurig' (c. 1798) [1:34]
Bagatelle in C major, WoO56 (1803-04) [1:43]
Bagatelle in C minor, WoO52 (1795) [3:38]
Elf Neue Bagatellen Op. 119 (1820-1822) [13:17]
Bagatelles (1810-1825) 
Bagatelle in A Minor, WoO 59 "Für Elise"(1810) [2:37]
Klavierstücke in B flat major WoO 60 (1818) [1:07]
Klavierstücke in B minor WoO 61 (1821) [2:01]
Klavierstücke in G minor WoO 61a (1825) [0:27]
Bagatelle I C major, Hess 57 (1823-24) [0:46]
Sechs Bagatellen Op. 126 [15:16]

Disc 2 (BIS-SACD-1673) [73:35]
Zwölf Variationen, WoO71
über den russischen Tanz aus dem Ballett Das Waldmädchen von P. Wranitzky [9:36]
Acht Variationen, WoO72
über Une fièvre brûlante aus Richard Cœur de Lion von A.E.M. Grétry [6:07]
Zehn Variationen, WoO73
über La stessa, la stessissima aus Falstaff von A. Salieri [9:23]
Sieben Variationen, WoO75
über Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen aus Das unterbrochene Opferfest von P. Winter [10:15]
Acht Variationen, WoO76
über Tändeln und Scherzen aus Soliman II von F.X. Süssmayr [8:02]
Sechs Variationen über ein eigenes Thema G-Dur, WoO77 [7:08]
Fünfzehn Variationen mit einer Fuge Es-Dur, Op.35 (‘Eroica’ Variations) [21:45]
Disc 3 (BIS-SACD-1883) [65:41]
Neun Variationen, WoO 63 (1782) [6:21]
Sechs Variationen, WoO 64 (c. 1790) [2:22]
Vierundzwanzig Variationen, WoO 65 (1790 / 91) [20:31]
Dreizehn Variationen, WoO 66 (1792) [11:58]
Zwölf Variationen, WoO 68 (1795) [12:32]
Neun Variationen, WoO 69 (1795) [5:02]
Sechs Variationen, WoO 70 (1795) [5:19]
Disc 4 (BIS-1892 SACD) [68:28]
Rondo in C major, WoO48 (1783) [2:30]
Rondo in A major, WoO49 (1783) [2:41]
Rondo in B flat major, Kinsky-Halm Anh.6 [7:10]
Rondo in C major, Op.51 No.1 (1796–97) [5:58]
Rondo in G major, Op.51 No.2 (1800?) [9:06]
Rondo a capriccio in G major, Op.129 (1795–98?) [5:59]
Ecossaise in E flat major, WoO86 (1825) [0:20]
Six Ecossaises, WoO83 (c.1806?) [2:09]
Andante in F major, WoO57 (1809) [8:50]
Fantasie, Op.77 (1800?) [9:40]
Polonaise in C major, Op.89 (1814) [5:21]
Klavierstück ‘Für Elise’ [3:35}]
Andante maestoso in C major (1826) [3:11]
Disc 5 (BIS-1942 SACD) [62:58]
Sechs Variationen über ein eigenes Thema in F major, Op.34 (1802) [13:21]
Sieben Variationen über “God save the King” in C major, WoO78 (1803) [7:44]
Fünf Variationen über “Rule Britannia” in D major, WoO79 (1803) [4:17]
Zweiunddreißig Variationen über ein eigenes Thema in C minor, WoO80 (1806) [9:30]
Sechs Variationen in D major, Op.76 (1809) “Die Ruinen von Athen” [5:42]
Zwei Präludien durch alle Dur-Tonarten, Op.39 (1789) [6:42]
Dreistimmige Fuge in C major, Hess 64 (1795) [1:38]
Präludium in F minor, WoO55 (1803?) [2:24]
Menuett in F major, WoO217 (1794) [1:53]
Allemande in A major, WoO81 (1793–94) [1:31]
Anglaise in D major, WoO212 (1793–94) [0:38]
Menuett in E flat major, WoO82 (1802) [3:17]
Walzer in E flat major, WoO84 (1824) [2:05]
Walzer in D major, WoO85 (1825) [0:35]
Disc 6 (BIS-1943 SACD) [67:34]
33 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1823) [47:17]
6 National Airs with Variations, Op. 105
I. Variations on a Welsh folk song (The cottage maid) [2:30]
II. Variations on a Scottish folk song (Von edlem Geschlecht war Shinkin – ‘Of noble stock was Shinkin’) [2:27]
III. Variations on an Austrian folk song (A Schüsserl und a Reindl – ‘A bowl and a skillet’) [5:34]
IV. Variations on an Irish folk song (The last rose of summer) [3:06]
V. Variations on an Irish folk song (Chiling O’Guiry) [2:08]
VI. Variations on an Irish folksong (Paddy whack) [3:02]

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