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Mozart: Piano Concertos No 24 and 25 / Brautigam, Willens, Die Kolner Akademie

Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1894  
Composer:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Ronald Brautigam
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

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


MOZART Piano Concertos: Nos. 24, 25 Ronald Brautigam (fp); Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Cologne Acad BIS 1894 (SACD: 55:29)

In this, the second installment in the BIS Mozart piano concerto series, the focus is on K 491, the greatest of all the concertos, and arguably Read more Mozart’s greatest instrumental composition. They say that one’s first love is often the deepest and most enduring, and my first encounter with K 491 came in high school when I checked out a scratched-up LP from the local library. Having been attracted by the cover, my selection was somewhat arbitrary but fortuitous nevertheless: The record contained a 1954 mono performance by Robert Casadesus and George Szell conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, which I later learned was a pseudonym for the Cleveland Orchestra. (Reportedly, the execs at Columbia Records chose this name in order to avoid paying union-mandated royalties.) I instantly fell in love with this extraordinary music. The luminescent performance was just as captivating, but when the same forces rerecorded this work in stereo a decade later, the performance was only a pale shadow of the original. Many recordings of K 491 have appeared since then, but none has equaled the white-hot passion of that old Casadesus/Szell performance—until now. The new version by Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam and American conductor Michael Alexander Willens is a very strong contender indeed, but more about that later.

I’ll grant that the exercise of calling works “the greatest” is fraught with peril, since in the case of Mozart there are so many potential candidates in his catalog—the G-Minor Symphony, K 550, for example, or Don Giovanni , or the “Jupiter” Symphony. The argument for K 491 is unusually strong, however, because the music clearly had special significance for Mozart. He wrote it in the midst of composing Le Nozze di Figaro —that he interrupted the completion of a commissioned work in order to write a piece on spec is a major indicator. Mozart wasn’t able to fall back on his customary facile compositional process, wherein the music would pop into his head, fully composed, while the actual writing-down might take place days or weeks after the fact. Here the genesis of the music cost him an inordinate amount of blood, sweat, and tears. There are multiple corrections, deletions, and additions in the messy, Beethovenesque manuscript, indicating that the compositional process was in many respects incomplete when the work was premiered in 1786. Even now, the score, issued as part of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, contains multiple, unresolved alternativi in the piano part—almost unheard-of for the punctilious Mozart.

The music is so far removed from the lighthearted fare normally associated with the composer that it may come as a shock at first. The tortured chromatic writing is one example; so, too, are the relentless minor-mode harmonies and the frequent use of Neapolitan fifths and German sixth chords. The persistent somber mood is broken only occasionally, as in the sunny, childlike Larghetto, or the E?-Major episode at bar 97 in the final Allegretto, no doubt a fleeting glimpse of happier, halcyon days. Elsewhere, there is real Sturm und Drang , for example the thunderous development section of the first movement with its proto-Romantic piano arpeggios over several octaves. But unlike the G-Minor Symphony, where an aura of genuine despair predominates, here the mood is mostly one of fatalistic resignation, especially in the extraordinary coda to the first movement, with its pianissimo dynamic marking.

Another highly innovative aspect of the work is the orchestral writing. In only a handful of instrumental works did Mozart require both oboes and clarinets in the woodwind section and give them equal music. The treatment of the woodwind in this work is unparalleled in its inventiveness; even the bassoon parts are unusually rich and varied, with quite different music for the first- and second-chair players.

The appearance of this SACD was an occasion for me to revisit the period-instrument versions of K 491 in my library—four in all: John Gibbons/Frans Brüggen (Philips, 1986, coupled with K 466); Malcolm Bilson/John Eliot Gardiner (DG/Archiv, 1989, coupled with K 595); Melvyn Tan/Roger Norrington (EMI, 1991, coupled with K 503); and Jos van Immerseel (Channel Classics, 1991, coupled with K 503). There is also an intégrale with the Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense that was recently rereleased on the Et’Cetera label. I haven’t heard any of that set, although Michael Ullman gave the original release a lukewarm reception in Fanfare 32:5. These are the only commercial recordings on period instruments with which I’m familiar. In additional to the recordings with fortepiano, I also had several modern versions on hand for comparison: the aforementioned Casadesus/Szell (mono and stereo), Rubinstein/Wallenstein, Brendel/Marriner, Uchida/Tate, Perahia, and Barenboim.

Brüggen has an excellent orchestra at his disposal, the Orchestra of the 18th Century, but overall the tempos are a bit slow and the approach lacking drama. Gibbons, who is known mostly for his harpsichord recordings, is not a terribly striking pianist. One would expect the Bilson/Gardiner team to nail this one, but the loud, hard-hitting first movement is oddly uninvolving, and the orchestra sounds scrappy. Tan plays all the right notes but sounds bored and disengaged. It’s a shame, because Norrington is an excellent accompanist who knows how to extract both the drama and the subtleties from the score, and he too has an excellent orchestra, the London Classical Players. Pianist Jos van Immerseel, who also conducts, has the best orchestra of all, Anima Eterna, but his approach in the first movement is too low-key, and he ruins the end of the last movement with his quirky, disjointed treatment of the 6/8 section. Also, I don’t care for his ornaments, which sound flippant and out-of-place in this music.

Enter Ronald Brautigam and Michael Alexander Willens, who immediately go to the head of the class with their intensely dramatic reading. Brautigam’s virtuosity has been lauded many times in the pages of Fanfare , but there is a stealth component to his playing that often goes unnoticed. Brautigam goes beyond the notes to find the emotional content of the music, even in the swiftest passages. Every phrase has a shape and a direction; there is never a dull, mechanical, or perfunctory moment. He achieves this primarily with dynamics, although he does use rubato at times, in the manner of a harpsichordist. Now, this degree of dynamic attentiveness is not uncommon in a modern pianist (Brautigam is a terrific performer on the modern piano as well), but on the fortepiano, it’s almost unheard of. Switching between Brautigam and the other fortepianists, I’m constantly impressed with the personality that comes through in his playing—and with how matter-of-fact the others sound.

Brautigam and Willens adopt brisk tempos in the outer movements of K 491; this is essentially a young man’s view of Mozart. Brautigam, to his immense credit, does not linger at the initial piano exposition (bar 100), but sees this as an urgent lead-in to the orchestral entry. The other fortepianists, by comparison, treat this passage as some sort of cadenza, which is certainly not what Mozart had in mind. Brautigam presses forward with vigor; the aforementioned development section is impressive in its forcefulness. Only in the coda do I find a miscalculation of sorts: The pianist has missed a golden opportunity to soften his figurations—which are, after all, an accompaniment to what’s happening in the orchestra—by engaging the moderator stop.

Brautigam and Willens take the middle Larghetto at a slightly faster tempo than the norm. I prefer it this way, as it avoids the tendency toward treacliness. I might have wished, however, for a bit more ritardando in the final bar: Mozart’s tender farewells should be savored, not rushed over. The concluding Allegretto is once again handled with dramatic flair, and like children on a treasure hunt, Brautigam/Willens unearth every single one of the emotional contrasts in this movement and bring the music to its thrilling, inexorable conclusion.

Lest you think that I view K 503 as a lesser piece, let me assure you that this is farthest from my mind. After the great C-Minor concerto, Mozart obviously had gone as far as he could in that vein; his only option lay in the sort of “public” style of composition that had served him well in the string of concertos leading up to K 491. K 503 is a masterly work, full of contrast between the extroverted, trumpet-and-drum music of the outer movements and the tender melodies of the kind that litter the middle Andante. Brautigam and Willens give the concerto the grand treatment; along with their performance of K 491, this has become my preferred version.

Note that in both works, Brautigam plays his own cadenzas and Eingänge , since none of Mozart’s own cadenzas have survived. I find Brautigam’s first-movement cadenza for K 503 to be just about ideal in length and content; the first-movement cadenza for K 491, however, is a bit on the short side, no doubt because the pianist is impatient to get on with things. Ordinarily I applaud brevity in a Mozart cadenza, but here I would have wished for a more thorough treatment of the movement’s main themes.

And now to the orchestral contribution. For the present recording, the string complement has been beefed up (4-4-2-2-2) compared with the first release; the strings sound noticeably fuller and warmer. I am pleasantly surprised to see three names in the roster: Marten Root (flute), Frank de Bruine (oboe), and Erich Hoeprich (clarinet). These men, coincidently all from the Netherlands, are some of the very top players in the world on their respective instruments, and largely responsible for the excellent woodwind contributions in both concertos. The other wind players (bassoons, horns, and trumpets), although less well known, are equally proficient.

The BIS recorded sound continues to be one of the main selling points for this series. Brautigam’s piano, a Walter copy by Paul McNulty, has a lovely sound on this SACD—full-bodied and leaning toward the brilliant side, but not overly so. I would call it the ideal sound for a Mozart concerto. The engineers have placed the instrument prominently vis-à-vis the orchestra, but every strand of the delicious woodwind writing in both concertos comes through loud and clear as well. The orchestra inhabits a wide, thoroughly believable soundstage, making for an uncannily accurate sonic portrait of the performance. Enthusiastically recommended.

FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 24 in C minor, K 491 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Ronald Brautigam (Fortepiano)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
Period: Classical 
Written: 1786; Vienna, Austria 
Concerto for Piano no 25 in C major, K 503 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Ronald Brautigam (Fortepiano)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
Period: Classical 
Written: 1786; Vienna, Austria 

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