October 08, 2004
Ronald Brautigam plays Mozart piano sonatas on a fortepiano

You know how some pieces of classical music sound wonderful when played on the right instruments and nothing like so impressive on other ones. Think especially of the Bach Double Violin Concerto (deranged for harpsichord and orchestra) or the Beethoven Violin Concerto (ditto piano and orchestra). Played on the right instruments, this music is wonderful, but with the wrong instruments it is extraordinarily diminished. Fun to listen to but … put it this way, "fun" says it all.

RonaldBrautigam.jpgBut now, I have discovered another such contrast, and this time in a good way. I have just been listening to some truly excellent CDs by Ronald Brautigam of Mozart piano sonatas played, not on a modern piano, but on a fortepiano, which is what they had just before they had finalised the modern piano, or pianoforte.

I have heard Mozart piano concertos played the usual way, with a modern piano and orchestra, and the "authentic" way with a fortepiano and orchestra, and in my opinion the comparison entirely favours the modern piano. Played on a fortepiano, for example on the CDs done by Melvyn Tan or Malcolm Bilson, these pieces sound small and constricted, strictly eighteenth century, and in a bad way. Played on a modern grand piano, by a modern grand piano virtuoso, they take wing magnificently. Indeed, one of the very first pieces of classical music that ever grabbed me by the throat was the Mozart D minor Concerto, K466, played for me first by Ashkenazy, later by Katchen and Barenboim.

But, unlike the Beethoven piano sonatas, which are every bit as magnificent as the Beethoven piano concertos, the Mozart piano sonatas have always seemed to me to be a bit of a let down. They have several pretty tunes. But that's all they were, pretty. Like those Mozart piano concertos played on a fortepiano, they seemed small, even insignificant. I've got wonderful CDs of these pieces, by the likes of Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Ushida, and (above all) Sviatoslav Richter, but even when Richter plays them, you feel that it is the player who is magnificent, rather than what he is playing. It's great playing, but not of great music.

But with Brautigam, and his wonderfully strong sounding fortepiano, all that sense of disappointment vanishes. This music sounds truly great.

When a fortepiano plays along with an orchestra, what you hear is a keyboard instrument that isn't strong enough compared to the orchestra, and the music is diminished. But when the fortepiano plays on its own, especially the way Brautigam plays it, and recorded the way Brautigam is recorded, and with music by Woflgang Amadeus Mozart for precisely this instrument, with lots of reverberation, it sounds positively orchestral. It sounds bigger than a piano. It's a piano and a harpsichord, the best of both worlds instead of the worst. And the Mozart sonatas, which sound small and female (in a bad way) on the piano, sound grand and orchestral. Or something. In truth I am not sure why exactly this music sounds so magnificent, but magnificent is how it does indeed sound, on these CDs.

I got them because somebody died, and Gramex, the second hand CD cathedral in Lower Marsh, got the lot. There was a feeding frenzy about two weeks ago, which I completely missed, and which is presumably when volumes 1, 2 and 6 got snapped up. But I still got volumes 3, 4 and 5, for £4 each. Cheap at twice the price, although at twice the price I would have said no. More fool me.

It isn't every day you discover a whole new collection of unreservedly great pieces by … Mozart. But today, I did.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:23 PM
Category: Classical music