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Ronald Brautigam has chosen the Diabelli Variations to conclude his series of complete Beethoven keyboard works for BIS. He is not alone in presenting the Diabellis on fortepiano (Schiff and Andreas Steier have both essayed this territory; Steier has some remarkable stops at his disposal) but Brautigam is mightily successful. The instrument, a McNulty copy of a c1822 Graf, is powerful and yet reflects Brautigam’s sensitive playing (Variation 20, for example). Brautigam has his own voice. The fortepiano has less variety of tone than a modern concert grand, and the gruff LD trills of Variation 6 snarl less than in many a modern recording (same in the rapid-fire, staccato Variation 10); yet they fascinate just as much. Variation 27 demonstrates the tightness of the bass to perfection, as well as the excellent clarity of the treble.

Brautigam goes to the heart of these variations: No 22 is fun but, crucially, not flippant. He manages to project the immensity of Beethoven’s structure while honouring the parts, no small achievement. Most crucially, the fugue (Variation 32) has a remarkable climax (equivalent in power to Pollini’s on DG).

The coupling is inspired. Just predating the Diabellis, the Six National Airs with Variations were published with flute or violin part ad libitum; but here we hear them freshly on the fortepiano alone. The Scottish one, ‘Of noble stock was Shinkin’, is fairly dramatic, the Irish ‘Last Rose of Summer’ beautifully melancholic, the final return to its theme highly effective (a Diabelli in microcosm?). The whole journey presented by these six mini-sets of variations is fascinating: the perfect coupling to the main event, and the finest of Brautigam’s Beethoven series.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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