On a Personal Note 

By Jan Rautio

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union my family emigrated to the UK, settling in London. We celebrated our first “Western” Christmas in 1992 (something I hadn’t experienced growing up in the USSR), and I received one of the most exciting gifts in my life: a small Hi-Fi system and a complete set of Beethoven’s symphonies recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. I remember a feeling of my life changing as I spent countless hours listening, studying the scores and becoming obsessed with the power of Beethoven’s language. My love for his music grew as I explored his symphonies, followed by concerti, sonatas and chamber music, and this love has never faltered.

To my young mind that aforementioned Deutsche Grammophon ouvre represented the ultimate expression of Beethoven’s capacity to overwhelm the listener. Under Karajan’s direction, Beethoven sounded robust, energetic, awesome. Back then I thought that this was how Beethoven should sound. Of course, perceptions change. Many years later, having graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, I began experimenting with performances on period instruments. I blame Jane Gordon for this development! She had already spent years studying historically informed performance at the RCM and the RAM, and she persuaded me that an exploration of bygone practices could not only provide compelling employment opportunities, it could also reveal hidden truths when interpreting music by Baroque and Classical (et al) composers. I was hooked.

When I began playing chamber music I immediately noticed how difficult it was to achieve good balance in a group dominated by the modern piano. I wanted transparency without sounding feeble; variety of tone without resorting to melodramatic undulations of volume; greater clarity of articulation. All of this is achievable on a Steinway, of course. However, as I began exploring the delicate soundscapes generated by 18th century keyboards, a new and pleasant reality revealed itself. A fortepiano makes light work of achieving transparency, clarity of tone and articulation. Whereas a 21st century piano sounds homogenous across its ranges, a fortepiano delights with noticeable changes of gear as one navigates through its registers. Down in the depths you’ll hear distinctive echoes of a harpsichord; in the middle you will find an uncomplicated lyricism; and at the very top everything sparkles like glittering gemstones. Everything becomes clear. This melody is here in the middle because the singing quality is easily attainable. That bass line was meant to sound gruff! These semiquavers scatter effortlessly in the upper register.

When Beethoven was composing his first piano trios he’d have heard pretty much the sorts of noises you will hear on this recording. Imagine yourself transported back to the end of the 18th century, feel Beethoven’s power of persuasion. Certainly, this is a subtler power than I experienced as a child – it is less robust yet more alluring. The energy of Beethoven’s musical language is there, but it somehow feels poignant. The fragility of a fortepiano is palpable with its occasional creaks and groans, and the experience of both playing such an instrument – and listening to it – is rendered somewhat more human. These early works, symphonic in scale, reveal a young Beethoven who was humorous, capable of profundity and profanity, someone who was already scarred, physically and emotionally, by the harsh vicissitudes of 18th century life. For me, playing Beethoven on a fortepiano makes these revelations easier to achieve. I feel how well he wrote for his instrument, and at the same time there exists a sense that this will not be enough – he will strain against the limitations, he will yearn for change, just as we all do.

I hope, dear listener, you will approach this recording with an open mind and a revitalised imagination. Perhaps this won’t change your life, but it could make it more interesting.

The Rautio Trio’s first volume of Beethoven Piano Trios is due out on September 2, 2022. Signed copies available from the Trio. Pre-order now