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Holy Missing Fortepiano! (Ronald Brautigam in Recital)

Amid the frenzy of new Beethoven Sonata traversals – Paul Lewis, HMU / Angela Hewitt, Hyperion / András Schiff, ECM / Mitsuko Uchida, Philips / Gerhard Oppitz, Hänssler –, one stands out more then the others, and that is Ronald Brautigam’s “cycle++” (it will include not just the sonata but the complete Beethoven works for piano) for BIS. Not necessarily because it outclasses the others in terms of playing (though from the few discs I’ve heard it is played phenomenally well), but because he uses fortepiano(s) for it.

Anyone who has followed Brautigam’s career on disc or in recital knows that that’s no mere gimmick. Brautigam does it because he believes that it gets him closer to the composer, and he uses the finest possible instruments to that purpose. If the listener can partake in that – via the struggle, the sound, the efforts needed to create certain sounds etc. – the all the better. In a recent interview he explains that if the composer writes ugly music, you have to play it ugly, too. And if the audience don’t like it, so be it. He is adamant about not using a work for a purpose but making the purpose fit the work at hand. Or not play it at all.

And he adds – intriguingly – that he’d rather be a ‘sound-museum’ than an entertainer.

That’s either a fair warning about anyone who plans to attend a recital or adding intrigue, depending on how you feel about classical music and/or ‘authenticity’. But at the recent Munich recital, organized by Winderstein Konzerte, that point was rather – and sadly – mute, because Brautigam did not travel with his fortepiano but instead played the Steinway concert grand of the Herkulessaal.

Had I had my eyes closed, I might not have noticed for a while, because in the opening movement of the E-flat Major sonata op.7, Brautigam made the piano sound less like you’d expect it to, being played not like a Hammerklavier but rather so as if to approximate its sound. The playing was ‘pebbled’, with quickly decaying notes, and an awfully odd sounding middle register. The contrasts in the slow movement – now sounding like a regular instrument again, with all the languor that it offers – were heightened by contrasting timbres and Brautigam caressing every break and pause as if the score were littered with little fermatas. The third movement Allegro saw more contrasts, single notes, and chords expanded – sometimes at the expense of the whole. Tender if necessary but never dainty, there was something brawny – but not bold – about this early Beethoven in the hands of Brautigam; something impetuous, self-conscious.

Op. 22 can get the performer (and listener) quite carried away with its effectual opening movement. Brautigam resisted that temptation – and showed some brilliance and speed that might be in part honed by the fortepiano playing. Rhythmical oddities made the Adagio of sonata op.22 a tad curious to listen to. Lovely, but not allowing for true sweetness. That might be refreshing, as such, but the energy with which Beethoven struts through this movement was sapped. Beethoven was interrupted, not helped here. The lively Menuetto and a fine closing Rondo pacified but were, in the latter case, not with the steely clarity and ‘objectivity’ that can be heard elsewhere.

The mixed first half was in any case overshadowed by a first-rate second half. Whether you think that Beethoven’s last important work for piano – the Six Bagatelles op.126 – are true, important, and wonderful late Beethoven, or rather modest, anticlimactic addenda to op.111 and the Diabelli Variations, there was no denying the excellence of Brautigam’s interpretation of these wildly varying six movements nor the delight in hearing these rarely performed pieces live and presented with such obvious passion. I myself veer between the two descriptions, but in recital I found many things wonderful in hidden ways about it, and one quirky detail that might amuse:

KapowListen closely to the second Bagatelle, Allegro, and see if you haven’t heard the dominant right hand figure a little over one minute into the piece (and again at a bit over two minutes) somewhere before. Yep, that’s right – it’s the title jingle from the Batman TV series; the “Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da” part before the “BAT-MAAAN” exclamation. Once it becomes obvious, it is difficult to suppress giggles in concert. I managed, barely, and listened to the meandering through stormy wild, tamed, dark and menacing, bright and fun sections – appreciating the work more, bagatelle by bagatelle.

Should anyone have expected understatement from Ronald Brautigam (often exciting but rarely outright wild), he had a surprise in store with the Appassionata sonata. I’ve heard it faster (but not by much and then usually sloppier) and more exaggerated (but then usually not to the desired effect). Here it was a fine combination of speed and emotion, relentless, mildly blurred and frightful runs, devoutly hammered-out chords in the first movement and then again explosiveness and a pointed attack in the third. Only the second movement Andante con moto struck as mildly plodding, undermining the incredibly charming back and forth between the hands that follows the introduction of the upper voice.

Like any good artist, Brautigam left one desiring more, even without convincing entirely. And he gave a little more, too.

Were he not on an all-Beethoven kick, I might have thought the encore was some unknown Schumann or Mendelssohn bonbon. It was Beethoven in disguies, though: the lullaby-inspired and -quoting, very pretty, slow movement of Sonata No.25, op.79.

Picture of R.Brautigam © Marco Borggreve, published with permission.

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