Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 12-15

Op 26, Op 27/1, 2 ‘Moonlight', Op 28 ‘Pastorale'


Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)




As MP's editor remarked recently when reviewing the Isserlis/Levin ‘cello + piano day, the issue of playing Beethoven on period instruments is seldom discussed. Partly, this is because Beethoven is such a monument in classical music that all attempt him; partly that, like everything since the French Revolution, it is close enough to our own times that we feel we understand what he ‘really' wanted.


So, though the likes of Gardiner and Norrington have recorded on period instruments, in general there is no comparable ‘authenticity' debate as there is with the Baroque. When it comes to the fortepiano, we have also all grown up with the anecdotes about Beethoven's dissatisfaction with the instruments of his time. The piano must break, he memorably said of how to play the ‘Tempest' sonata); then there are all those passages (such as in Op 109 and Op 110) where the line of the music would continue upwards were it not for the lack of notes on the treble register. So we parrot Beethoven would have preferred to hear his work on a modern Steinway instead of thinking through the implications.


Ronald Brautigam is amongst the best living exponents of Beethoven on the fortepiano; his interpretations allow us to experience the fire and emotion of the sonatas without any sense of the disadvantage of a smaller, less sustaining instrument. It therefore goes without saying that this latest disc in his complete sonatas series is exemplary and can be recommended without reservation.


The Moonlight benefits most from being thus heard with fresh ears. The first movement is so well known as to be impossible to interpret; Brautigam wisely plays it relatively quickly; the lightness of the fortepiano sound leads the listener on convincingly. Likewise, the faster passages in the Pastorale take on a sound and fury lacking from most modern interpretations; there is little temptation, as there would be with a more velvety modern piano texture, to sentimentalise the piece according to its nickname. Even in the slow movement, the long staccato passages take on quite a different, and more disturbing character, through being played on the period piano.


It is true that the funeral march of Op 26 may sound grander on a modern piano, and the clatter and roar of the Moonlight finale less desperate, but Brautigam plays at all times with an acute awareness of scale, combining intimacy and drama; he at least opens a debate over the idea that ‘our' Beethoven is not automatically Beethoven's own.


This BIS offering is an SACD; well recorded, quite brightly so; the cover continues the ‘ Beethoven street signs' theme of earlier discs in the series. An entirely successful CD.


Ying Chang


This disc is very instructive in illustrating the different challenges of playing Beethoven on a period and modern piano. On today's instrument, Beethoven requires great care in the performer to produce the right tone colours, but on the fortepiano, if you listen to the beginning of Op 26, for example, there is a much greater sense of naturalness; that the fortepiano naturally expresses Beethoven's intention.


This is also very true in the ‘Moonlight,' with tempi and textures beautifully judged by Brautigam. Op 28, on the other hand, doesn't sound ‘pastoral' at all – I suspect that this is not an uncharacteristic shortcoming of interpretation, but something inherent in how Beethoven wrote the sonata. The repeated single notes, especially in the first movement (which comes off worst) sustain much more easily on the modern instrument. Brautigam's instrument (a 2001 copy of an 1809 fortepiano) is also excellent – very expressive without any ping or buzz. Brautigam is a strong interpreter – these are mighty performances.


Jill Crossland