Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Piano Sonatas: No. 26,
No. 27; No. 29,
Ronald Brautigam (fp)
BIS 1612 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 69:17)
Beginning with Peter Burwasser’s review of Vol. 1
has lavished praise on this pioneering series of the complete Beethoven piano music, and rightly so. Although not the first pianist to use a period instrument to record the complete Beethoven sonatas (that honor belongs to Malcolm Binns on L’Oiseau-Lyre, circa 1977), Brautigam is the first to approach the music in such a way that the choice of a period instrument is no longer a novelty, or even the main attraction. Rather it is the music, as filtered through Brautigam’s phenomenal technique and unique musical insight, which takes center stage. You may not agree with all of Brautigam’s interpretive choices—his breathtaking tempos, the extreme clarity of his passagework, his relatively “unsentimental” treatment of the most familiar works—but there hasn’t been a single failure (so far) in the series, and many are nothing short of revelatory.
This brings us to the present disc, containing as it does the “big daddy” of them all. I admit to having regarded No. 29 in the past as some kind of musical
War and Peace
—in other words, not a work that one puts on casually for easy listening. Brautigam has changed all that for me: the work’s extreme density and impenetrability, especially in the concluding fugal movement, are largely things of the past. From the imposing opening chords to the triumphant concluding measures, Brautigam manages to shed light on the “Hammerklavier” in a way that is unlike that of any other previous pianist or fortepianist. He turns the work into an absorbing musical experience, rather than the exercise in tedium that it often is.
The bugaboos in this work are Beethoven’s published tempos; as with the symphonies, there is considerable debate whether these are musically appropriate or even playable. The great pianists of the past have wrestled with the issue of tempo, most acute in the imposing final movement of the “Hammerklavier,” with varied success. Some, like Schnabel, have opted for speed, only to find their technique not up to the challenge. Others, most notably Serkin, have managed to conquer the last movement, but at a slightly relaxed tempo. For his part, Brautigam takes the final movement faster than just about anyone, but here one senses that his technique has finally met its match—in other words, he’s not superhuman after all! Listen, for example, to the scurrying 16th-note passages that dot the landscape of the finale and how they are rendered with such precision—but not without a certain amount of strain—that
virtually for the first time
we are able to hear the ingenious way in which all the lines fit together. Instead of a wall of sound, we hear a finely crafted edifice. The music’s architecture is revealed, and that makes possible an immediate and heightened understanding of Beethoven’s musical logic.
The other movements are treated with equal care, although the technical demands here are not as extreme. The multisectional opening Allegro gets an appropriately heroic treatment, but Brautigam doesn’t miss the details and dynamic nuances, either. He wrings out every last measure of excitement in the Scherzo, yet finds an equal amount of introspective lyricism in the Adagio sostenuto, proving that he is not just a “one trick pony.”
The other well-known sonata on the CD, op. 81a (“Les adieux”—called “Das Lebewohl” by BIS), receives a carefully considered reading. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Brautigam’s approach, I feel that others have been more successful in capturing the special qualities of the work—the proto-Romanticism, if you will. In particular, check out the fine recording of this work by another distinguished Dutch fortepianist—Paul Komen on Globe 5184. Unfortunately, this series of the complete Beethoven sonatas was never completed (Globe ceased operations in 2001 upon the death of Klaas Posthuma), but the five volumes that were issued can still be ordered online at www.globerecords.nl, and form a valuable adjunct to the BIS series.
Sonata No. 27 may not be as well known as its nicknamed brethren, but it is prime-time Beethoven. Beginning with a dramatic opening Sonata-Allegro, and concluding with a songful finale whose main theme would be right at home in Schubert, this wonderful work receives a sterling performance from Brautigam.
A word about Brautigam’s choice of instrument is in order. Starting with Vol. 6 and the “Waldstein” Sonata, op. 53, Brautigam has used a Paul McNulty copy of a six-and-a-half-octave Graf piano from c. 1819. The special qualities of this instrument have largely gone unnoticed by the critics—including my colleagues at
. I will go out on a limb here and say that, prior to these BIS recordings, all “late model” Viennese fortepianos on LP and CD, whether originals or copies, have been severely lacking in certain tonal aspects. This has led some people, understandably, to reject the fortepiano, although perhaps for the wrong reasons. The specifics are these: all models with an extended treble compass—the Grafs, the Streichers, the Fritzes, the Hafners, and their ilk—suffer from an attenuated upper treble. Hit a high register note on any of these pianos, and you get a “thunk” rather than a “ping.” A deficiency such as this, of course, is anathema in Beethoven and Schubert, who were the first important composers to demand an extended upper compass. The technical explanation is complex: in a nutshell, it’s a problem of basic design and layout. The Viennese
, which sits atop each key and takes up a considerable amount of front-to-back space, is simply too big for the overall layout of a Graf, and this forced Graf and the other builders to extend the bridge
the rear of the keys in the treble. There is literally no soundboard under the strings in the upper treble, and hence, no resonance. In the earlier Viennese instruments of Walter and Stein (op. 31 are the latest Beethoven sonatas that work on these instruments), this was a non-issue, since the highest available note is F
(the F above high C) or in some cases C
, allowing the bridge in the treble to retain its own little piece of soundboard.
I don’t know how Paul McNulty has solved this problem, but I’m glad he has. His Graf copy has a sparkle to it in the upper treble that’s missing from other late Viennese fortepianos. And considering how often Beethoven asks the pianist to pound away above the staff, it’s a good thing. It means that Brautigam can clarify textures and bring out the upper line in a way that no other fortepianist has been able to do. One should not, of course, expect the same sort of bell-like treble sonority characteristic of a modern Steinway or Bösendorfer. Rather, it is a degree of sustain in the treble that is commensurate with the other registers of the instrument.
Where does this leave us
the fortepiano world in general? I’m not sure, although in recommending this disc I’m probably guilty of the same sort of anachronism as those who advocate Bach played on the modern piano. Does it matter that this Graf copy sounds markedly different from all the others? Absolutely not, and it brings me back to my original point, that this is not a
recording of Beethoven, but simply a very fine recording of Beethoven that happens to have been done on the fortepiano.
The recorded sound, especially on SACD, is state-of-the-art. If you haven’t sampled any of the previous volumes in this series, now’s the time. It doesn’t get any better than this, and all that’s left are the three last sonatas, opp. 109, 110, and 111. Gosh, I can hardly wait!
FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen
It's easiest to explain how Beethoven's "Les Adieux" sonata comes alive in Ronald Brautigam's hands by zeroing in on a few telling details. Notice, for example, the fortepianist's slight elongation of the first movement's loud sustained chords, the central movement's unusual yet convincing alla breve sensibility, or how the finale's edgy, forward momentum gives no quarter, and actually leaves wrong notes by the wayside. Marked dynamic contrasts and intensified melodic inflections also impart uncommon urgency throughout both of Op. 90's essentially lyrical movements.
On a purely professional basis, Brautigam's "Hammerklavier" cannot be faulted. He serves up the outer movements' unwieldy counterpoint solidly and decisively, and takes sonorous advantage of his McNulty fortepiano's unique damper and una corda pedal effects (the Fugue's hushed D major episode, the Scherzo's trio, and much of the slow movement). However, despite a problematic period instrument, I still prefer Peter Serkin's early 1980s recording, which boasts generally faster tempos, more angular, nuanced phrasing, and palpable nervous energy. Just before the first-movement recapitulation, Serkin favors the "inspired misprint" A-sharp to the less jarring yet more likely correct (alas!) A-natural that Brautigam plays. As usual, BIS provides a vibrant and realistic surround-sound experience, although this disc sounds equally marvelous in conventional two-speaker stereo, and scarcely less fine via digital MP3 download.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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