Beethoven Complete Works for Solo Piano
These variation sets, mostly based on quite undistinguished themes, give us an idea of what Beethoven’s powers as an improviser must have been like. They were written in the late 1790s, at a time when his style was at its most deliberately provocative, and most of them end with a coda that has the music wandering into wholly unprepared keys. The wilful gruffness of the Variations in B flat, on a theme from Salieri’s opera Falstaff, prompted one contemporary reviewer to complain they were ‘stiff and learned’, with ‘harsh tirades’.
With the exception of the grandly conceived Op. 35 Eroica Variations – they share their theme and some of their compositional procedures with the finale of the Eroica Symphony – these Variations belong among the least known of Beethoven’s solo keyboard pieces. But they shed fascinating light on his piano sonatas of the same period. They are virtuoso works, and Ronald Brautigam, who tends to favour quick tempos, plays them in genuine virtuoso style, but without ever failing to bring out the music’s more expressive moments. He plays, for the smaller pieces, a reproduction 1805 piano by Mozart’s favoured maker, Anton Walter, switching to a later, slightly bigger-toned instrument by Conrad Graf (one of whose pianos Beethoven owned) for his fine performance of the Eroica Variations. A must for those interested in the byways of Beethoven’s keyboard music.