Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mozart: The Complete Piano Variations

A signpost reading "Caution: Genius at Play" should mark each and every set of keyboard variations penned by Mozart. The variation form is where Mozart didn't compose so much as he jammed, riffed, and allowed his powdered wig to all hang out in between big projects like operas and concertos. Mozart probably improvised some of these works before setting them to paper, and they best communicate when played in an unfettered, spontaneous manner.

The fluency of Mozart's ideas and the beauty and logic inherent in the piano writing has to come across without the pianist sounding as if he or she has practiced the tricky passages a thousand times. Even more than in his excellent Mozart sonata cycle for BIS, Ronald Brautigam's tempos feel just right, whether adrenaline supplements seem to be fueling the pianist's potent left hand in the C major Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je Maman" and E-flat major set on "La belle Françoise", or the delightful, show-offy sections of the "Je Suis Landor" Variations K. 354.

Other significant works sprinkled among the variation sets include Eine Kleine Gigue (its dizzying metric displacements tossed off with lightness and glee), a flexible and refreshingly unsolemn B minor Adagio, the perky D major Rondo, and a graceful and supple rendition of the underrated French Overture K. 399, with its harmonically sophisticated Allemande. In a handful of pieces like the A minor Rondo, I feel that Brautigam's little holdbacks and feminine endings are a bit precious, studied, and ultimately predictable. However, that hardly detracts from the collection's overall success.

Once again Brautigam uses a Paul McNulty fortepiano (modeled after an Anton-Gabriel Walter instrument circa 1795). Unlike many fortepianos, it doesn't boast pronounced timbral differences from one register to another, but most of the time the soft pedal produces a delicate lute-like sonority that greatly contrasts to the instrument's tangy brightness. With BIS selling these four discs at the price of two, how can you go wrong? [9/21/2001] --Jed Distler,

4 CD · MP3 320 · 553 MB

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