Ronald Brautigam is one of the world's leading players of historical pianos: hearing him play on a vintage instrument or replica is an enlightening experience, bringing out aspects of the music that pass one by when it is performed on modern pianos.

Ronald Brautigam © Marco Borggreve
Ronald Brautigam
© Marco Borggreve

DK: We loved seeing you perform Beethoven at last year’s BRQ Vantaa Festival on a replica of a Conrad Graf [a fortepiano owned by Beethoven himself]. Can you tell us about the experience of playing on that instrument?

RB: More than a year later, I only remember that it was a lovely instrument in a wonderful setting. I have played many other Grafs since then, and they remain amongst my most favourite Viennese fortepianos. As for Vantaa, there is nothing to beat playing a historical piano in a great sounding church: the extra acoustic really helps the sound of the piano.

What started your interest in performing/recording on historical pianos?

In the 1980s, having experienced Rudolf Serkin's inspirational teaching, I wanted to delve as deep as possible into the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, so apart from studying autographs and early editions I became fascinated by their sound world, what did they hear and feel when they played their pianos. I accidentally met fortepiano maker Paul McNulty, who at that time lived and worked in Amsterdam, my home town, and played one of his pianos. It was love at first sight (hearing?), and the rest is history.

Conrad Graf replica piano at St Lawrence's Church, Vantaa, Finland © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Conrad Graf replica piano at St Lawrence's Church, Vantaa, Finland
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

How much of your technique has been learned from teachers, and how much have you developed by your own study?

I owe my modern piano technique largely to my old teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory, Jan Wijn and to this day, I am greatly indebted to him.

As soon as I had my first fortepiano, a 5-octave Walter copy by Paul McNulty, I realised that modern piano technique wouldn't do on such an instrument. But then I hadn't bought the instrument to use for concerts: I only wanted a “reference” instrument sitting next to my modern piano in order to understand the music better.

However, after two years of discovering how to get the best result out of my little Walter, there was no way back: I'd fallen completely in love with the fortepiano and decided to play Mozart's sonatas and at a later stage to record them. And after Mozart came Haydn. And after Haydn came Beethoven...

But to come back to your question: I taught myself the different fortepiano technique through trial and error.

You've recorded music on a variety of replica instruments by Paul: tell us about him...

As previous answers show, Paul has been a key factor in my fortepiano career. From our first meeting on, we became very good friends and I loved sitting in his workshop with a beer watching him build a piano from scratch. And just as in Beethoven's time when builders went out of their way to accommodate him, Paul has been involved in the BIS recordings from the very beginning, bringing pianos which he thought would be perfect for the music to be recorded. Mozart and Haydn was rather simple: the perfect music for his Walters. But when it was Beethoven's turn, Paul decided that he also wanted to be involved with the later compositions and built his first Graf copy.

Paul McNulty with his pianos © Majka Votavova
Paul McNulty with his pianos
© Majka Votavova

Do you have a favourite instrument?

My very favourite fortepiano is still the 5-octave Walter. There is nothing to beat its crispness, transparency and sparkle when playing late 18th-century music.

The 5-octave Walter is at the end of a exciting development from harpsichord to fortepiano, a perfect instrument in itself. And the sheer physical pleasure of playing these tiny light keys... there is nothing in the world to beat that feeling.

Your acclaimed Beethoven concerto recordings for BIS are on a modern instrument. Tell us about that choice.

I wanted to record the piano concertos, but at that time, I didn't have a period band to record them with. And then I found myself in Norrköping, Sweden, playing no. 3 with the local symphony orchestra conducted by Andrew Parrott. He had been a regular visitor to the orchestra and had got them to play like a period band, non vibrato, beautifully articulated.

Our Beethoven was such a success that the orchestra's director semi-jokingly said: “Well, if you ever need an orchestra to record the concertos, you know where to find us!”

So we gave it a go.

But right now I am re-recording them with the Kölner Akademie and their conductor Michael Alexander Willens, on Paul's fortepianos.

Clearly, you sound different on a fortepiano than how you would sound on a modern grand. Is it simply a matter of sounding “more authentic”, or have modern piano makers lost something in the course of making their improvements?

Ronald Brautigam © Marco Borggreve
Ronald Brautigam
© Marco Borggreve
We should never forget that a composer writes for the instrument he knows, using its capacity to the full. So Beethoven's music played on a period instrument will always sound different from what we're used to hearing on a modern piano.

The Beethoven we know, played on modern piano, is in fact a “translation” of his music, like a play by Shakespeare in German: the story remains the same, but Shakespeare's words, chosen for their particular vocals and alliterations, are lost.

Up till the end of the 19th century, piano builders had their own particular sound-philosophy: each had his “own” composers. Chopin preferred Pleyel and Érard, Brahms Streicher, Liszt Érard and Boisselot etc.

It was when the concert halls became larger and larger that sound quality had to make place for sound quantity, and thereby an individual world of piano building gradually disappeared.

When listening to your performances (I’m particularly thinking of Beethoven sonatas), what should a listener look out for if he/she is familiar with the works on modern instruments but is hearing them on fortepiano for the first time?  

I think that the listener should forget what he already knows and just open his ears.

No preconceived ideas of how Beethoven should sound, just open your ears and enjoy the different sounding piano, the wonderful recording quality and hopefully a bit of decent playing...

People sometimes ask me why my tempi are faster than on the records they have at home and why I try to play a “different” Beethoven. My answer to that is that they have become used to a “different” Beethoven with tempi that are sometimes far too slow, and that I just do what Beethoven writes, nothing more, nothing less.

You have a busy concert schedule ahead, stretching into 2019. Are there any you’d particularly like to tell us about? Or any recording projects?

I continue recording with Michael Alexander Willens and his Kölner Akademie. We just finished a complete cycle of Mozart piano concertos (they have now all been released) and a disc with Mendelssohn concertos (just finished recording that one, so it'll probably another half year or so before that will be released).

And as I already mentioned, we have just started recording the five Beethoven concertos. With Michael it is an ongoing project: as long as records will be made, we'll continue making them.

As for my solo CDs, I still want to continue a bit with Mendelssohn. And Schubert is already lurking in the wings...


You can watch two concerts by Ronald Brautigam from the Concertgebouw on Bachtrack At Home:
The Chopin Second Piano Concerto, with Krzysztof Urbański and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
The Brahms Piano Concerto, with Michael Schønwandt and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic