Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2007 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Complete Works for Solo Piano Volume 4
Sonata No 12 in A-flat major, Op 26 (1800-01)
Sonata No 13 in E-flat major, Op 27 No 1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (1800-01)
Sonata No 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 27 No 2 ‘Moonlight’ (1800-1)
Sonata No 15 in D major, Op 28 ‘Pastoral’ (1801)
Ronald Brautigam (McNulty fortepiano after Anton Walther)
rec. 2005, Österåker Church, Sweden
BIS BISSACD1473 [78]

Ronald Brautigam’s stimulating Beethoven sonata traversal continues apace with Volume 4. Judging by various reviews and online forums, it appears to be winning many new friends and regular readers to these columns will know my own feelings – it is, quite simply, shaping up to be one of the finest cycles of recent years. Given the stature of the music, most collectors will have a variety of performances anyhow, and I’ve repeatedly made the point that Brautigam’s fortepiano recordings will sit very happily alongside more ‘conventional’ renditions, my own favourites being Richard Goode and Barenboim’s early EMI cycle. I have to say though, that virtually every time I’ve felt the need recently for a Beethoven sonata ‘fix’ – and that’s pretty often these days – I’ve reached for a Brautigam disc, such is the level of excitement and intensity of the musicianship.

Needless to say, I can’t wait for some of the late sonatas to come round, but here with Volume 4 we get a couple of really famous mainstream works, so I was particularly interested in what Brautigam would do with a ‘pot-boiler’ such as the Moonlight. In fact, in the end it’s quite simple – he plays it blessedly straight and fuss-free. Once again the instrument’s particular qualities come to the fore – a beautiful bell-like upper register, even voiced middle and sonorous (by fortepiano standards) bass. In some cases, and the Moonlight’s first movement is one of them, you may anticipate missing the modern Steinway depth of tone and sustaining power, but not a bit of it. Yes, Brautigam keeps the tempo flowing, but the instrument copes perfectly well with what’s asked of it, and atmosphere is there is abundance. As may be expected, the finale is tremendously exciting, full of bravura and fire, with the piano responding magnificently. The whole performance is admirably free of mannerism and sentimentality, which is not to say it is bland or prosaic – it speaks directly and lets the notes do the work.

The same could be said of the Pastoral, where the only controversial movement is the brisk, no-nonsense andante, nearly twice the speed of Barenboim’s EMI reading. The flowing speed works for me, with the tick-tock staccato accompaniment in the left hand

taking on a quite different character to normal. The tangy rasp of the fortepiano gives the finale’s droning bagpipes, again in the left hand, a really earthy, peasant feel.

The other sonatas, 12 and 13, are also pretty non-interventionist and having already mentioned Richard Goode, it occurred to me that the reason I like his complete cycle is precisely because of this approach, putting the music first and not drawing too much attention to ‘the playing’. Brautigam does still give sharper definition than usual to accents and does tend towards brisk tempos – though not as much as earlier volumes – but these more mature sonatas are beginning to show, at least to my ears, a lessening of the extremes without losing any character or impact. Another success, very well filled and with superb BIS sonics to keep audiophiles happy. Carry on collecting with pleasure.

Tony Haywood

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