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Compared to the 32 sonatas and Diabelli Variations, Beethoven’s bagatelles are his least well-known piano works. Of the bagatelles, only one, the bagatelle in A Minor “Für Elise,” is a familiar work. On the other hand, pianists love them and with good reason. Beethoven wrote bagatelles for piano throughout his career and because of that their styles vary; there is always something remarkable to be found in these works. Some of the bagatelles are miniatures of only a few brief measures while others were originally conceived as sonata movements or sketches. What is consistent is the bottomless wit and invention that’s found in each set. Fortepianist Ronald Brautigam continues his traversal of Beethoven’s piano works with this recording of the composer’s complete bagatelles.
The Op. 33 bagatelles were composed between 1800 and 1803. Brautigam shifts nicely into the mood of each piece. His superior technique serves the music marvelously so when he plays up the humorous stops and starts of the second bagatelle it’s very musical and not exaggerated. He fires off the arpeggiated surges of the fifth seemingly without effort and pushes the rambunctious energy of the seventh for all its worth. But it’s in the seventh bagatelle that some of the liabilities of performing this music on the fortepiano are thrown into focus. Beethoven was notoriously unhappy with the state of pianos of his day, (“clavicembalo miserabile,” he once commented) and in forte passages the Paul McNulty copy of an 1805 Walter & Sohn instrument does rattle a bit.
Brautigam switches to a McNulty copy of an 1819 Graf fortepiano for the second half of the program and the instrument and fortepianist make a strong showing. Of the eleven bagatelles in the Op. 119 collection, it’s the elegant fourth and songlike eighth that impress most. The Op. 126 set is comprised of Beethoven’s last published piano works and they are the only bagatelles conceived as a set from the start. If you are a fan of the Diabelli variations, the Op. 126’s little vignettes with their bursts of acerbic humor will delight you. Brautigam understands the playful nature of all this music while also conquering every technical demand that it makes. I’m not ready to trade in my recording of Alfred Brendel in this music, but Brautigam will surely join it on my shelves.