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Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos - Brautigam, Willens

Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos - Brautigam, Willens

BIS  BIS-2274 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos

Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
Die Kölner Akademie
Michael Alexander Willens (conductor)


As one of the finest pianists of his era and an improviser of genius, Ludwig van Beethoven’s preferred vehicle for musical exploration was the piano. His earliest composition, from 1782, was a set of piano variations and he continued to compose for solo piano until the last years of his life. His interest in the concerto form diminished as his deafness forced him to retire from performing. Nonetheless, with his five piano concertos composed between 1788 and 1809, Beethoven not only achieved a brilliant conclusion to the Classical piano concerto, but also established a new model for the Romantic era: a sort of symphony with obbligato piano which remained a reference point well into the beginning of the twentieth.

Ronald Brautigam has already recorded these seminal works with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, in acclaimed performances released between 2008 and 2010. Since then he has also released all of Beethoven’s solo piano music on the fortepiano to universal praise. When Brautigam now returns to the concertos, it is in the company of conductor Michael Alexander Willens and Die Kölner Akademie playing on period instruments. The same team has previously partnered him in an 11-disc survey of Mozart’s piano concertos and it is plain to hear that all involved clearly relish the opportunity to congratulate Beethoven on the eve of his 250th anniversary.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - December 3, 2019

With yet another composer celebration year coming, one will no doubt see special releases, such as this one: A new, complete set of all five Beethoven Piano Concerti. And I stress ‘new’ because one might expect that many old warhorses will be drawn from their stables on the occasion of the 250th Beethoven Anniversary Celebration; older recordings to be refurbished, dressed up in new tack or beautified by any other means of 'remastering'. I wonder though to what extent it can still be done without adding something new or seldom played, as much has already been (over)done during the past decade.

BIS, however, have found the soft spot in the market; this time without the extras of Brautigam’s first set, possibly to keep it within financial reach of most melomanes. And there are several further pros as well. Not only are they played on a fortepiano – in fact, two different McNulty copies have been chosen – Bis have also opted for the revival of the much-lauded Mozart combination with Alexander Michael Willens and his ‘Kölner Akademie’ period band. A winning team with guaranteed success for all the privileged period performance lovers?

To put things in a wider perspective: There are few complete sets on period instruments. On RDBC there are the notable accounts of Jos van Immerseel, with his Anima Eterna and the one with Steven Lubin and Hogwood c.s. The only one recorded in Super Audio is Beethoven: 5 Piano Concertos - Roll, Kantorow, Wallfisch, Shelley, which seemingly did not muster much enthusiasm (zero recommendations). This being so, BIS have hit the jackpot: No competition, a winning team and… on only two discs; meaning: Less finance to fork out in a usually expensive end-of-year-festive-period.

But as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I sat down to listen if the set would, indeed, satisfy my anticipated appetite. In spite of all the boxed Beethoven sets, there is none like this one. And everything I had in mind, or should I say: prejudiced, came true. What a musicianship on display by both Brautigam and Willens. The former with almost unbelievable finger brilliance, the latter with magical control over his musicians. Perfect balance between the sections, clear textures, well-judged attack and liveliness, always in tune with the soloist. This account cannot be compared with any romantic, full orchestra version. It’s different and that’s what it should be.

Reviewing complete sets, it sounds a bit cheap to say that it has its ups and downs. And if there are any ‘downs’ (nit-pickers will always find some), they are more than compensated by the thrill of the ‘ups’. Lovely, involving soundstage, projecting the fortepiano as an integrated part of the action, with, at least from my preferred seat in the room, no mechanical clickety-click noises (as noticeable in some of the early Mozart set recordings).

As I suggested before repeatedly (and, according to publicity experts, it must, therefore, be true): A team with a winning account of five of the most rewarding piano concerti in musical history, and for sure for all those appreciating refreshing clarity and sparkling performances. As usual a bit faster than the rest, but so what! Does anyone really know how they were played in Beethoven’s time, notwithstanding his metronome markings? Add the set to your preferred recordings for sheer pleasure and alternative enjoyment.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2019 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Dissonance - November 5, 2019 (1 of 1)

An interesting release by BIS just in time to anticipate the 250th Anniversary Year of Ludwig van Beethoven. The first disc consist of Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4 and takes the generous playing time of 87 minutes and 56 seconds! The second disc consist of the remainder and lasts 69 minutes and 17 seconds. In the consumer point of view it would have bring more considerable value to the album if the ’Choral Fantasia’ (Op. 80) would have been added to the set as a bonus. In its total time of ca. 18 minutes both the discs would have had the same total time (69’17 + ca. 17’30 = 86’47).
Recording sessions took place in July 2017 (Nos. 1 & 3) and in July 2018 (Nos. 2, 4 & 5) at the Deutschlandfunk Chamber Music Hall, Cologne, Germany. Producer: Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production), sound engineer: Christian Starke. Original format: 24-bit / 96 kHz high-resolution PCM.

In some way I do understand BIS’s recording policy; this release is its first album of the works recorded with fortepiano instead of a modern-day piano. But why to record something that already is on the market, even more than once?! BIS has already released two sets of Beethoven’s Piano Concerti; one was made with Yevgeny Sudbin featuring Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä (in the last album the orchestra was Tapiola Sinfonietta), another was recorded with (again) Ronald Brautigam featuring Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Parrott. Come on, why not to record such a works like ’the Creatures of Prometheus - Complete Ballet’, ’Complete Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont’ or ’Christ on the Mount of Olives’? All of these features truly memorable music and deserves to be recorded more often, especially in high-resolution audio and Surround Sound.

But who knows what BIS has on the pipeline for the next year, maybe we will receive some of the works listed above...