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Mozart: Piano Concertos, Vol 02 - Brautigam, Willens

Mozart: Piano Concertos, Vol 02 - Brautigam, Willens

BIS  BIS-SACD-1894

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K.491, Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major K.503

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


Composed in 1786, the Piano Concertos Nos 24 in C minor and 25 in C major are regarded as two of Mozart's finest achievements in the genre. Both are large-scale works, with durations of more than 25 minutes each – the C major concerto is in fact one of the most expansive of all classical piano concertos, rivalling Beethoven’s fifth concerto. Their grandeur immediately made them popular fare in the concert hall – Mendelssohn, for instance, had No.24 in his repertoire through the 1820s and 1830s – and new recordings appear regularly.

It is nevertheless relatively rare to hear them performed on original instruments and with orchestral forces corresponding to what Mozart himself would have been familiar with. On his copy of a fortepiano from 1795 and with the congenial support of Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens, Ronald Brautigam therefore offers us a welcome opportunity to experience these masterpieces as they may have sounded when Mozart himself performed them.

The first release in the team’s traversal of Mozart’s concertos, which included the ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto No.9, was released in 2010 and caused the reviewer in International Record Review to describe the soloist as ‘an absolutely instinctive Mozartian, with… melodic playing of consummate beauty’, going on to congratulate him on finding the ‘ideal partners’ for the project.’

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - December 17, 2011

This disk is in many ways remarkable. Ronald Brautigam, though equally at home on a modern concert grand, is a specialist on the fortepiano and Mozart. I refer to his wonderful set of Mozart sonatas (BIS RDBC). With this second installment (and Thore Brinkmann’s info below) BIS is well underway to produce a (complete?) set of Mozart piano concerti with this Dutch virtuoso. The chosen combination with the Kölner Akademie looks fine, too. As it is the first set on the pianoforte in the world of Super Audio, it deserves our full attention. This said, there are a few points you may want to be informed about before buying. As far as the artistic quality is concerned, the first thing one notices is the fast pace in both concertos. Technically, this poses no problem whatsoever to Brautigam, Willens and the members of the orchestra. Textures are light and refreshing. Particularly good is the balance between strings and winds; the small string section makes them come to the forefront so much better, like in Mozart’s time. It enhances the liveliness and the interplay with the pianoforte. But not everyone may like the speed. Not so much in the outer movements, but more so in the slow, middle movements. In the 24th Brautigam turns Larghetto (to be performed moderately slowly) into Andante (walking pace). The Germans say: ‘In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister’. Mozart was one of those composers, who could say a lot with very few notes. For a good ‘understanding’ these few notes need to be given the time to fully express themselves. If I make a comparison with my first set on fortepiano (Malcolm Bilson, who plays another copy of the same Anton Walter, with the English Baroque Soloists and John Elliot Gardiner conducting) Brautigam rushes through this movement in 5’.58, whereas Bilson takes 7’.51. That is no less than 35 percent faster! And Bilson by no means sounds sluggish. (Martin Helmchen on Pentatone takes 7’.37). Timings in the slow movement of the 25th are: Brautigam 6’.08, Ashkenazy 7’.31, and Brendel 8’.11 (2001 Philips SACD recording with the late Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra). It is all a matter of (modern) taste, but for me, much of the intimate value of these searching, and at times inward-looking movements, get lost.

Another point of attention concerns the recording. Right from the moment the piano sets in, I noticed an awkward kind of toneless ‘plock plock’ sound in the rear channels, following the rhythm of the piano in the front channels. When played through the rear channels only, the sound was fuzzy, with piano echo. I checked with other piano recordings in the same way but heard no such thing. I informed BIS about it and my concern was forwarded to BIS’ sound engineer, Thore Brinkmann. This is his answer:

QUOTE
Dear Adrian,
First of all thank you for taking the trouble of writing to us. Your message actually reaches us while we are in Cologne at "Deutschland Radio" recording the 4th Volume of the Mozart Concertos with Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie in the "Kammermusiksaal". So we are indeed very interested!
The SACD in question has been recorded in the more lively acoustic of "Immanuelskirche" in Wuppertal. I was lucky enough to have a copy of the recording with me and did now exactly what you did - listen to the surround channels "solo" - and I understand precisely what you mean. Of course the first thing I have to point out is that these channels have never been intended for separate listening. They are part of a concept. What you hear there is partly direct sound (reaching the microphones mostly from the piano) and echoes and reverb from the church. It really sounds VERY funny alone because of the "late" reflections arriving from the back wall of the church. With the correct amount of direct signal (mostly front channels) and the less spacy room information on the front channels it all makes sense.
Setting up the microphones in more a lively acoustic comes along with many challenges. Here are a few:
-you need to decide the best place for the ensemble (we actually evacuated over 70 chairs to be able to use, what we deemed the best area)
-you need to get the right balance between the instrument groups (in this case especially Orchestra-Piano)
-you want it to sound natural (not too wet, not too dry) in both stereo and surround
-you don't want to lose the positive aspects of the location (its natural acoustic)
-you have to get along with the problems of the location (there is no "perfect" location that will suit every style of music)

I understand that you first got alerted by some acoustic effect, before you chose to "zoom in" on the surround channels. While we try to mix/master our recordings so that they can be played on any surround setup, there are some factors that we cannot entirely control. You may have calibrated your system with slightly more level from the rear speakers than we have (we have 5 identical B&W Nautilus 802 speakers with identical level), or your acoustic or placement is very different from ours. Possibly the 5ch version of this disk is on the wet end of the scale for this kind of repertoire, because the venue was. However, we found the amount of "spacial effect" from the real church still very pleasant and absolutely within the boundaries of good taste.

While I am sure that there is no technical "error" on this recording, I am of course very sorry that you are not entirely satisfied with the surround sound. Please consider checking the levels from your surround speakers by calibrating (trust your ears more than automatic settings). And make sure the Center Speaker is on, too, at the correct level. Our recordings are originally made to work on 5 channel systems for correct balance. Ultimately there is also personal taste involved in the question and I will certainly take your comments into consideration when we mix the upcoming releases. Hopefully the more controlled acoustic of the "Kammermusiksaal" will suit your taste better.
UNQUOTE

After checking once again my settings I could not get rid of the disturbing ‘plocks’ in the surround channels. Listening in stereo, however, the sound is quite good, missing maybe a bit at the bottom end. As for the artistic value: If you like a ‘sparkling’ rather than an ‘intimate’ Mozart, this is not a bad choice at all. Everyone involved is top-notch.

Copyright © 2011 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars stars

Review by John Miller - December 22, 2012

Let's get the matter of a controversial cover photo of an axe-wielding lumberjack perched on a big log out of the way first. It actually shows an early stage in manufacture of a historic piano replica, extracting timber from a Linden tree for the hammers. On this disc, Brautigam uses a fortepiano after an Anton Walter model, c.1795, by Paul McNulty. Mozart was fond of Walter pianos and bought one for himself. The photo is therefore apt, reminding us that such intricate and lovingly produced replica pianos don't materialise, ready to play, in the showrooms.

Brautigam's slowly unfolding Mozart concerto cycle now presents a pair from 1785-6, coincident with the composition of Le nozze di Figaro, K.492. The scores of both concertos reflect this in their operatic devices and the greater use of woodwind for presentation and development of important material. Mozart’s concerto writing reaches a climax in the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491. The first movement, for example, is longer and more formally complex than earlier concerto first movements. There is an unrivalled level of intensity in the interaction between the piano and the orchestra, including an extraordinary confrontation between its two thematic forces in the development section (bars 330–45).

The next concerto, K 503 in C Major, was composed in December 1786. It too is on a larger scale than previous concertos, and in its way as imposing as the great K. 491. It too shows signs of stylistic experimentation. The entry of the piano leading into the statement of the main theme in the first movement, for example, combines intimacy and grandeur in an unprecedented manner. The pairing of these two concertos gives an opportunity to enjoy the contrasts between them and to savour their innovations - to the extent that Mozart himself called them, together with the later concertos, as 'Grand'.

Die Kölner Akademie, in their period instrument incarnation, are Brautigam's accompanists. For both of these concertos they have plenty to do, as the orchestral part is much more extended and complex, so much that K 491 and K 503 have been called 'concertante' works. Soloist and orchestra are on much more even terms, and the dialogue between them is very well expressed, thanks to conductor Michael Willens. The Akademie consist of strings 4,4,2,2, flute and pairs of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and timpani. This gives a balance which brings clarity to the woodwind's extra presence in these concertos, although some might think that the recording balance favours them too much.

Comparison with other (RBCD) complete cycles of the Mozart piano concertos in period performances by Bilson/Gardiner, Immerseel/Anima Eterna and Sofronitsky/Karolak showed that Brautigam/Willens had consistently faster tempi, especially in the slow movements. These differences often strongly affected the atmosphere of each movement. For example, a noticeable faster opening to K 491 was rather closer to Mozart's "Allegro" instruction, so that the mood coming across in the opening bars was for me more like a hide and seek game between the darker Comedia dell' Arte characters, rather than expressing plain pathos. Brautigam's greater speed for the Larghetto of K 491 allowed him to float its solo cantilena quite convincingly, preserving its innocence. The other pianists, often at considerably slower paces, ran into the problem of rapid decay of the Walter piano's treble notes, so that the melody became disjointed and difficult to phrase; Sofranovich was actually plodding, note by note. Bilson tackled the problem by adding spontaneous ornamentation, thus effectively joining together the melody notes. Another plus for Brautigam was the truly Mozartian nature of his own cadenzas, not overdone or anachronistic like those of mentioned above. They fitted perfectly into their context, stylish but never causing a hiatus in the music's flow.

Overall, Brautigam and Willems have a fine understanding of the status of these concertos, although perhaps the heavy weight of that status somewhat inhibited their enthusiasm and spontaneity. Both orchestra and soloist present beautifully played Mozart, particularly in presenting the almost constant orchestra-solo dialogues, so much a feature of K 491 and 503. But for me the performances lack the final touch, that "must hear that again" feeling. Nevertheless, collectors of the BIS set of concertos need not hesitate to buy on this account.

Well produced as usual, the church recording makes the orchestra sound larger, with the woodwind having plenty of presence, often delightedly so. Balancing period pianos with orchestra is notoriously difficult, but the different tonal qualities along the registers is nicely captured, the bass being quite strong but the tenor range rather weaker, so that some of the Alberti Bass accompaniment figures were hard to hear with the orchestra joining in.

A welcome addition to the BIS Mozart concerto series.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

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