‘Theme and variations’ is one form that Beethoven employed throughout his career. He wrote his first surviving set while still a boy in Bonn and finished the last one some forty years later – a statistical fact that becomes interesting when one considers the inherent tension between the composer’s dramatic style and the static and decorative nature of the form itself. Towards the end of the 18th century variation form was generally used for entertaining elaborations on popular tunes but Beethoven, being Beethoven, changed the ground rules radically. For a while he followed the convention – or shrewd marketing strategy – of using existing melodies from operas or ballets, but often these would almost immediately undergo such profound transformations that he might as well have used an unknown theme. As a consequence it is understandable that Beethoven’s variations were often considered much too learned, far too eccentric and, by some, even offensive. Following on his acclaimed recordings of the composer’s sonatas, sonatinas and bagatelles, Ronald Brautigam here presents the first disc of four with variations, comprising works composed between 1796 and 1802. These were momentous years during which Beethoven became established as the leading young composer following Haydn and Mozart, but also began to suffer from a loss of hearing which in the summer of 1802 would bring him to a deep personal crisis. The one work here that was composed after this crisis, the ‘Eroica variations’ Op.35, is on a much larger scale than any of the variations he had written before, and Beethoven concluded them with a fugue, himself describing the work as being in ‘a wholly new style’. Highlighting this change in style, but also illustrating the rapid development of the fortepiano during this period, Brautigam has chosen to use two different instruments for this programme – the earlier works, left without opus numbers by the composer, are played on an instrument by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn c.1805, while the Op.35 set is performed on another by the same maker, after Conrad Graf c.1819.