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25.8.12

Briefly Noted: Some Recent Bagatelles

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Bagatelles (opp. 33, 119, 126; WoO 52, 56, 59-61), S. Osborne

(released on May 8, 2012)
Hyperion CDA67879 | 67'19"

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 10 (Bagatelles), R. Brautigam (fortepiano)

(released on July 5, 2011)
BIS-SACD-1882 | 71'07"
While spending a lot of time listening to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations recently, I was struck by scholar Jean-Paul Montagnier's comparison of the mostly concise movements of that work to something akin to bagatelles. It was a reminder that pieces that might seem on the surface like amuse-bouches can actually make a full meal served together, and it made me want to listen to Beethoven's actual bagatelles with a different ear. It gave me a good excuse as any to write about Steven Osborne's curious new recording of all of them. The programming choice is hardly new, although this has more of the pieces Beethoven actually called bagatelles than Brendel's classic set (Philips). Somewhat strangely, Osborne omits only WoO 54, substituting two Allegretto movements (WoO 61 and 61a) and the famous little piece in A minor known as "Für Elise" (WoO 59), while Ronald Brautigam's set, part of a generally fine complete Beethoven cycle on fortepiano, is exhaustively complete.

Having recommended Steven Osborne's recital at the Phillips Collection last March, I was disappointed to miss it because of having other fish to fry (Joan Reinthaler was there for the Post). Osborne's bagatelle disc is a fizzy breeze of a recording, with polished technique and uniformly diverting interpretations, generally preferring brisk and devil-may-care over the occasionally melancholy approach of a player like Brendel, closer in some ways to the fine recording of Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics, 2002). A few unusual moments stand out, as in the blurred pedal effect in the B section of op. 33/7 (Beethoven's marking is "senza sordino," meaning to depress the pedal to lift the damper mechanism), with a gossamer-light touch at breakneck speed in the main section. One complaint comes in op. 119/4, where the piano's upper treble range sounds a little out of tune. This is not unusual at the top extreme of the keyboard, but it happens in other places, too.

It strikes me as somewhat odd that Osborne's hand is lighter, cleaner, and more evanescent than Brautigam at the fortepiano (on instruments built by Paul McNulty), who is generally more explosive and pointed in tone. Osborne has nicer voicings in the rather plain op. 33/4, for example, and Brautigam pushes some tempos too far, like op. 33/5 (Allegro, ma non troppo), to obtain a sort of velocity-drunk effect. Osborne generally hits a more pleasing balance of tempos, while Brautigam's articulations tend to be closer to the score (as in the last note of op. 33/5). Brautigam does have the advantage of his instrument in some unusual articulations, like the harp-like sounds of the short notes in op. 119/2 and the arpeggios of op. 119/3, but rushes through the cantabile of op. 119/4. Both Osborne and Brautigam hit op. 119/10, a tiny wisp of a piece, with all of the speed they can muster, finishing in 12 and 11 seconds, respectively. Brendel, who interpreted the tempo marking "Allegramente" as something like "cheerfully" more than "manically," took four times as long.

In the six bagatelles of op. 126, one gets an intimate glimpse at some of Beethoven's final musical thoughts, as they are the last work for piano that he completed. While listening, don't miss the chance to study Beethoven's manuscript of op. 33 set and op. 126 set (.PDF files), made available by the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. The latter source is difficult to decipher, but the severity of the composer's exacting hand is no less pronounced. Glenn Gould's eccentric recording of this set -- made for the CBC, in not great sound but with exceptionally short timings -- gets at the enigmatic nature of some of these pieces, the bagatelle not as tossed-off trifle but as compressed aphorism. Scholar Lewis Lockwood, in his study of Beethoven, notes that the opp. 119 and 126 bagatelles are "like decorative ornaments to the great jewels of opp. 110 and 111." That Beethoven worked so diligently on them at the time as he was working on such vast works as Missa Solemnis and the ninth symphony "shows that these are serious little compositions, representing his miniaturist side as explorer of aesthetic extremes."

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