Site review by ramesh February 19, 2007
|COMPARATIVE SACD : Hewitt on Hyperion SACDA67518 for Opp 7 & 10/3.
Brautigam's extraordinarily generous hybrid SACD packs the wonderful three sonatas of Op 10 along with the big Op 7 sonata. It is customary for CDs to include only the Op 10 set, without any coupling. This coupling is unique, stretching the boundaries of the CD layer to 81 minutes 35 seconds. No other piano set I know of can squeeze these four sonatas into one CD, and this is indicative of the brisk, no-nonsense tempi.
This disc has all the hallmarks of the previous two in the series. Brautigam performs on the same modern copy of an 1802 Walter fortepiano; in other words one made not long after the composition of these works. The recording has very little intrusive mechanical noise from the instrument, something which would be more evident if an original were used.
With three discs in this series, some generalisations can be made about what is proving to be a highly compelling 'integrale'-in-progress. With Brautigam's expected BIS series of the Beethoven piano concertos on a modern piano not yet made, it is impossible to say how much his Beethoven style in the sonatas has been adapted to the differing tonal and dynamic capabilities of the fortepiano. The immediately striking characteristics are : a heightening of the timbral contrasts between the fortepiano's bass, treble and highs instead of the usual modern pianist's ideal of tonal evenness and homogeneity; quickish opening allegros with slightly reduced differentiation between the first and second subjects; and scampering finales which verge on the motoric.
The Op 7 sonata has a less maestoso opening movement than Gilels, Richter or Arrau bring to it. This might seem underwhelming, but the following Largo compensates. The 8:18 timing here is brisk, but the quicker harmonic decay of the fortepiano means that those great spaced fortissimo chords in the movement still have tremendous impact whilst dissolving into silence. One can easily see how the greater sustaining power of the modern concert grand has led to a broadening of the Beethovenian slow movement to preserve the same effect.
The quirky, nervy opening bars of the first bars of Op 10/1 have always sounded slightly uncomfortable to me. However, the broken phrasing Beethoven employs clicks into focus with the fortepiano, especially at the genuine allegro Brautigam observes. Brautigam doesn't capture the rapture and chasteness of the beautiful Op 10/2, so wonderfully performed by Gilels, but the performance he gives is still far more interesting than almost any other performance on the modern grand, at least in the first two movements. The concluding Presto is rushed through in 2 : 14; the finale is still highly effective, but it demonstrates the only significant interpretative absence in Brautigam. He lacks the quirky, buckshot range of humour Beethoven writes into many scherzos and finales, which musicians such as Schnabel, Brendel and Kempff illuminate.
The comparison to Angela Hewitt's SACD is telling. Hewitt, if her past record for Hyperion is anything to go by, may eventually make this an integral cycle. This SACD has been lavishly praised by others. Listening to it once, there was much to admire, but I found Brautigam more interesting. Partly this is due to the fact that Hewitt is laying herself open to all the competition in recorded history, whereas Brautigam's fortepiano pegs out a virtually unique niche. Hewitt's playing in Op 7 is 'grander' on her Fazioli. However, comparison of some sections such as the coda of the opening movement fall short of the overwhelming power that Gilels and Richter particularly bring to it. This being said, if Brautigam's tempo for this movement were replicated on a modern concert grand, his performance would sound more perfunctory than Hewitt's. However, in the BIS disc, one's ear has adapted to the more limited capabilities of the fortepiano, and the impression of the composer straining to break through the technical constraints of his instrument is well realised through Brautigam's fingers. Hewitt's contrapuntal dexterity is impressive in the third movement Allegro, even though she never approaches the meticulously balanced [ and meticulously dispassionate ] Michelangeli in his DGG recording. Nevertheless, Brautigam's fortepiano finds more tonal variety here.
In the Largo of Op 10/3, Hewitt is much slower than Brautigam, making this movement tragic, whereas Brautigam's playing is more akin to sombreness. Splendid a pianist that Hewitt is, her tone is still rather 'white', compared to the golden hue that some of the greatest pianists can suggest in this movement. One is aware of a greater tonal variety through Brautigam.