A Beethoven a Day: It’s in the bag

A Beethoven a Day: It’s in the bag


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2020

Welcome to the 14th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


Bagatelles Opus 126 and 119

The more important set of Bagatelles, dating from his last years and inscribed to his turbulent brother, were described by Beethoven as ‘the best I’ve written’. Although the term ‘bagatelle’ means trivial, the six short pieces contain elements of profound sonatas, notably opp 101 and 106. Listen to Sviatoslav Richter play three of them in Moscow 1959 and you will be left in no doubt of their bottomless depth.

Alfred Brendel recorded the set at least three times, exemplifying his constant quest for meaning. Although the studio sound is a tad brittle, I find his earliest recording, for Turnabout in 1964, the most agreeable and least stressed of his output.
Wilhelm Kempff, in the same year, sounds so laidback you have to wonder if this is not an assertion of cultural ownership: only a true German could possibly know what Beethoven really had in mind. Kempff’s take is so antipodal to Richter and Brendel that I’m almost tempted to compare them phrase by phrase and will probably do so on a desert island when this edition is over.

Other worthwhile contenders include the suprisingly muscular Stephen Kovacevich, the marvellously ethereal Piotr Andreszewski
the tempo-bending but vastly authoritative Anatol Ugorski and the totally unexpected Welshman Lyr Williams.

For a non-plinky fortepiano alternative, I like the unhurried, conversational approach of the Belgian Jos Van Immerseel.


11 Bagatelles opus 119
Earlier and more haphazard than the six Bagatelles opus 126, this set of 11 was grouped together for the benefit of a London publisher. One can almost imagine Beethoven grabbing sheets of paper from the chaos that surrounded his desk. Some of these Baggers date back to the 1790s and the whole set sounds more convincing on a period piano than a modern one. Ronald Brautigam, strictly non-aligned in terms of musicological disputation, is the one to hear.

The Hungarian Jeno Jando makes a good contrast for uncomplicated entertainment, as does the Austrian Rudolf Buchbinder and Steven Osborne, whose label Hyperion is one of few that refuses to put its recordings on Idagio. You’ll have to track him down the old-fashioned way, and you won’t be sorry.


  • fflambeau says:

    It’s hard to go wrong with Richter.

    Another great pianist who performed all of them well was R. Serkin. Ditto for G. Gould. The great A. Schnabel made several recordings of them.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Hopefully the earlier set of 7 Bags, opus 33, will be reviewed

  • Navermyr says:

    Valery Afanassiev’s on Denon is a marvellous reading.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    fflambeau says “It’s hard to go wrong with Richter.”
    That’s true, in this and any other repertoire he chose to play.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I agree with your opinion of Wilhelm Kempff.
    I saw him twice in concert (all Beethoven) and was amazed by the casual and effortless way he shaped some of the phrases.
    It was though the music was part of his DNA , was so ingrained they he merely had to throw his hands into the keyboard to produce the most extraordinary sounds.
    It felt as though he was born knowing this music.
    (In that respect I have always felt there was a certain similarity between Kempff and Furtwängler).
    This was decades ago and yet I can still picture it and hear it in my mind’s eye and ear. Unforgettable.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    I like Glenn Gould’s performances (Op. 33 and 126).
    Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know….