Mozart: Piano Concertos 9 & 12, Rondo K 386 / Brautigam

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This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


MOZART Piano Concertos: No. 9 in E?, “Jeunehomme”; No. 12 in A. Rondo in A, K 386 Ronald Brautigam (fp); Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Cologne Academy (period instruments) BIS 1794 (SACD: 58:36)

When I read the announcement that Ronald Brautigam would be recording the complete piano concertos of Mozart for BIS, I fairly jumped for joy. For anyone who has followed the Dutch pianist’s career on record, as I have, it was clear from the beginning that he was born to record Mozart. This was confirmed when the Mozart sonata recordings were released on BIS. In them, Brautigam combines dazzling technical mastery and beautiful sound with the utmost attention and devotion to the score. Brautigam’s playing is all about brilliance and virtuosity, but he is capable of delivering in the slow movements as well, as we shall see.

It’s easy to say that any given artist is “in a class by himself.” Yet Brautigam’s specialization on the fortepiano truly sets him apart; next to Malcolm Bilson, he has made more recordings on this instrument than any other artist. No longer is the fortepiano a novelty; for many listeners, it has become an essential ingredient in a Mozart concerto. The crisp articulation, sparkling treble and clear bass of Brautigam’s Walter copy are exactly what the music requires. Now when I listen to a Mozart concerto played on modern piano, I find the sound dull and muddy by comparison, and the pianist often seems to be fighting with the instrument. I admit that this newfound attitude of mine is a significant sea change, considering that the heroes of my youth were pianists such as Schnabel, Haskil, Gieseking, Casadesus, Serkin, Brendel, and Rubinstein.

Perhaps less-well understood is Brautigam’s approach to phrasing. Scarcely a phrase goes by, even in the speediest prestos , that has not been personalized in some way. There is nothing perfunctory about his playing; every note has a place and purpose in the overall scheme. Brautigam accomplishes this primarily with dynamics, rather than with rubato in the manner of a harpsichordist. In that sense, you could call his performance style forward-looking, as it points to 19th-century Romanticism, rather than backward toward the Baroque. The five-octave Viennese fortepiano affords the player a wide range of dynamics, almost as much as the modern piano, and Brautigam takes full advantage of the resources at his disposal.

Aside from the various isolated period-instrument recordings that have appeared over the years, there have been exactly two complete traversals of the Mozart concertos on fortepiano: Malcolm Bilson and John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv, and Jos van Immerseel on Channel Classics. There is also one notable aborted series: Robert Levin and Christopher Hogwood on L’Oiseau-Lyre. The Bilson/Gardiner set was the first to appear and is still serviceable (it’s routinely offered at bargain-basement prices on the Internet), but was marred by some raucous oboe playing in the early concertos. The early digital sound is now out-of-date, making it a chore to listen to. I haven’t heard many of the van Immerseel CDs, but the performances I did hear were rather laid-back and uninvolving, while the recorded sound was too distant. The Levin/Hogwood set, which managed to log about two-thirds of the concertos before the breakup of the Universal Music Group, is the most engaging of the three. Professor Robert Levin of Harvard, the foremost Mozart expert on the planet, plays flawlessly; his on-the-spot cadenzas are a marvel and constant delight. The orchestral accompaniments are simply the best thing Hogwood has ever given us on disc. Yet there are also some drawbacks: Levin uses a different fortepiano for practically every concerto—the piano sound varies considerably as a result. At least one of the instruments is substandard and shouldn’t have been recorded at all. And then there is the ultimate hair-puller: Levin and Hogwood stopped before they got to four of the best-loved and greatest concertos: No. 21 in C Major, No. 24 in C Minor, No. 25 in C Major, and No. 27 in B?-Major.

The time is therefore ripe for a new complete set of the Mozart concertos on fortepiano. A comparison with the first CD in the Levin/Hogwood series (L’Oiseau-Lyre 443 328) and the new BIS CD is instructive, since they contain (almost) the same music. Only the Rondo K 386 is lacking on the older recording. Surprisingly, Levin and Brautigam adopt nearly identical tempos throughout. A measure-for-measure comparison of both pianists, however, reveals that while Levin’s passagework is as clean as a whistle, he often comes across as a bit cold and mathematical. Brautigam’s playing, on the other hand, brims with life and personality. He caresses and shapes every phrase; there is never any doubt what the message is or where the music is headed. And both the minor-mode Andantino of K 271 and the Andante of K 414 are deeply felt and affecting, proving that there’s more to Brautigam’s pianism than “glitter and be gay.”

The wild card in this new release is the Cologne Academy. Very few people on this side of the Atlantic have heard it or its CDs. The Fanfare Archive, for example, lists only one CD, a recording of an oratorio by Medner. On the present CD, the strings are very nicely in tune and unanimous but also a little thin in tone, due to the small size of the group (4-3-2-2-1). The liner notes hint, however, that the group will grow as required for the later works. The winds, consisting here of pairs of oboes and horns, are colorful and well behaved, although a bit too prominent in relation to the strings for my taste (or is it that the strings are undernourished?). The fiercest competition in the orchestral department comes from Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music; I admit to being partial to that group’s fullness and suavity of sound.

Typically for BIS, the recorded sound is rich and detailed. Every nuance of Brautigam’s piano is discernable, from the luminous treble to the growl of the low bass. The instrument is placed rather forward in relation to the ensemble, but the overall soundstage is deep, wide, and totally believable. The preceding remarks pertain to the SACD layer; these benefits are less obvious on the regular Redbook CD layer. Anyone who has played in a chamber ensemble with strings will be familiar with the slightly edgy sound of live violins, and SACD technology is ruthless in its ability to reproduce this characteristic. Be forewarned: The period violins on this recording can be a trifle piercing at times, but the simple solution is to cut back on the volume a bit.

Except for the Rondo K.386 (where the pianist supplies his own), Brautigam plays the cadenzas that Mozart composed in the final year of his life for most of the piano concertos, collected under the rubric K.624. There are two authentic cadenzas for second movement of K.414; Brautigam plays the first. Although no indication is given, the assumption is that Brautigam will continue to use authentic Mozart cadenzas in subsequent recordings.

A most auspicious beginning for the series—highly recommended.

FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-SACD-1794

  • UPC: 7318599917948

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Michael Alexander Willens

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cologne Academy

  • Performer: Ronald Brautigam