Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Piano Sonatas: No. 16 in G; No. 17 in d,
No. 18 in E?
Ronald Brautigam (fp)
BIS 1572 ((Hybrid multichannel SACD: 67:49)
First of all, these are fine performances of these sonatas; thoughtful,
virtuosic, and colorful. The SACD sound is terrific. They can certainly be recommended for these qualities alone, even in the midst of a ridiculously crowded field. But Beethoven lovers should hear this music-making for other, less immediately compelling reasons. The argument has been made that one cannot completely appreciate Beethoven’s piano music without hearing it played on the instrument he wrote it for. I agree with this, although with significant reservations. Brautigam’s ongoing recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas is shaping up to be a powerful argument for this school of thought. He is even changing his instruments as the project continues, using pianos that match the vintage of the music and even what Beethoven himself was playing. For this release, Brautigam plays on a reproduction of an 1802 Walter und Sohn (the year all three of these sonatas were written), built by the pianist’s friend Paul McNulty in 2001. After the release of Volume I, for which I reviewed Brautigam on these pages, I commented that his work was so significant that he “challenges the very notion of playing this music on modern instruments, a stylistic paradigm shift,” a quote which now appears on the promotional material for these CDs.
Why, then, do pianists and audiences alike still overwhelmingly prefer to hear this music on modern instruments? Obviously, if a sort of sea change were to take place, as it certainly has in the realm of Baroque music, it would take at least a generation of retraining and retooling. (What if Steinway suddenly got into the business of making reproduction fortepianos?) But I think it is also possible to argue that in Baroque music, the difference between the sound of period instruments and modern ones is more dramatic than the difference between an 1802 Walter and a nine-foot concert grand. Perhaps most significant is the sheer scope of the tradition of playing this music on modern instruments. Countless great teachers have schooled countless brilliant students in the ways to make this music come alive on a device that, technologically, had evolved to its current state over a century ago. There is nothing of comparable depth and foundation in the world of Baroque performance practice.
To miss hearing Beethoven played on period instruments, especially at the level of excellence we get with Brautigam, is to miss something special and even revelatory. The color and texture we hear in the rapid passagework, for example, in the Rondo of Sonata No. 16, has a lucidity and range that makes Beethoven’s ideas even bolder. As Brautigam told me in our interview, the fortepiano also highlights the sense of struggle that Beethoven conveys. The heavier tone and enhanced reverberation of the modern instrument obscures many details that the best players cannot rescue, and the easy legato mitigates the tension. On the Walter, these elements are facile and delectable. At the same time, no one need apologize for missing the menacing growl of the bass line in the first movement of the Sonata No. 18 (“Tempest”) or the rich dynamics in the great Allegretto of the same sonata that jump out in a performance on a modern grand.
So, at the risk of sounding like a shill for the recording industry, my recommendation for the Beethoven collector is to own both period- and modern-instrument recordings of this music. Our choice on modern instruments seems endless (I have always loved Richter’s way with “The Tempest”). On period instruments, Brautigam is in a class by himself.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
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