, August 2011
Für Elise is cited on the cover of this release, and the booklet notes begin with a couple of paragraphs on the equality of popularity of this tune with the Ode an die Freude, and the contrast in creative gestation between these melodies. There is speculation as to what a ‘complete’ survey of Beethoven’s Bagatelles might be, as only the Opp. 33, 119 and 126 were published in his lifetime, and by no means all the miscellany of unpublished works gathered together after his death have titles or are defined as Bagatelles as such. What all of these pieces have in common is an avoidance of the standard forms characteristic of the first movement in a sonata from this period. In his booklet notes Roeland Hazendonk remarks that the Bagatelles not only hark back to pre-classical suite movements, but were also an enticing fore-runner of the character pieces which Romantic composers after Beethoven used to break free from the classical roots of tonality to which Beethoven still adhered in his sonatas.
With a programme which covers pretty much the entirety of Beethoven’s creative lifetime, Ronald Brautigam has recorded the first half of this CD on a fortepiano from c.1805, and the second half, including Für Elise, on another fine Paul McNulty made reproduction from c.1819. The differences aren’t huge, with the later instrument having a fuller bass and richer treble, though both instruments having an extremely fine sound. The point has been made for this series before but it’s worth making again. The forerunners of the modern metal-framed grand pianos of today have lower string tension and a smaller volume in general, but as Paul McNulty and Ronald Brautigam amply prove here and elsewhere, these instruments can whip up a real storm. These Bagatelles are by no means all light and easy charmers, and the Bagatelle in C minor WoO 53 on track 11 is a case in point; a wide-ranging study on an innocent sounding theme which is brought through moments of Schubertian turbulence.
One of the nice features with these instruments and some of these pieces is the appearance and use of the soft pedal—a real damper rather than just a shift from three to two strings as with a modern grand. The third of the Sieben Bagatellen Op.33 has this effect for instance, the soft pedalled moments appearing as a kind of echo. As you might expect with Beethoven, these ‘echoes’ never appear in quite the key you might expect, creating an even greater effect of other-worldliness.
Für Elise itself is played with great subtlety and charm, and without any attempt to make more of it than the piece demands—even people who are heartily sick of the work should find themselves falling back in love with it from this performance. Anyone doubting the appeal of an album filled entirely with Bagatelles should think again. The range of pieces here is staggering, from miniature sketches the shortest of which is only 11 seconds long, to rich and far-reaching movements which cover masses of territory both emotional and technical. Particularly the Sechs Bagatellen Op.126, Beethoven’s last published work for piano, contain some remarkable music. Anyone with an interest in the sonatas and Beethoven’s late ‘problem-and-solution’ approach should hear these works—free as they are from the rein of cyclical sonata form. Hazendonk describes them as “witty, often hard-driven and sardonically humoristic music”, and Ronald Brautigam uses them to push his instrument to the limit.
With superb 5.0 SACD surround this is a recording to be treasured in its own right, and comes highly recommended as something a bit special even amongst the rest of Brautigam’s excellent fortepiano Beethoven cycle.