Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 18 & 22 (SACD review)

Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano; Michael Alexander Willens, Die Kolner Akademe. BIS 2044.

After reviewing as many familiar, basic-repertoire items as I have from a variety of great artists over the course of some forty-odd years, it's hard to tell one from another anymore. Any new recording has to have something very special to offer in the way of performance or sound in order to make me sit up and take notice. This new album from pianist Ronald Brautigam with Maestro Alexander Willens and the Cologne Academy made me sit up and take notice.

Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam (b. 1954) is probably best known for his performances of Beethoven pieces on fortepiano. Here he's working with piano concertos by W.A. Mozart (1756-1791), but it's close enough, and again he's performing on the fortepiano, forerunner of the modern grand piano and a sort of evolution up from the harpsichord. It hasn't quite the rich sonority of a modern grand piano but isn't as clinky-clangy as a harpsichord. Above all, the fortepiano provides a good, clear piano sound; besides which, Mozart himself probably played the instrument, the fortepiano being used throughout most of the eighteenth century. Accompanying Mr. Brautigam is the Cologne Academy, a small ensemble of several dozen or so musicians dedicated to music of the seventeenth to twenty-first centuries and playing on both period and modern instruments, depending on the material.

Audiences are pretty familiar with both concertos on the disc. First up is the Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major, K. 456, which Mozart wrote in 1784. It's a fairly joyful work, and Brautigam plays it that way, with enthusiasm and quiet passion. Brautigam shows a light touch throughout the concerto, yet it's a lively lightness, full of sparkle and energy. He and Maestro Willens always seem to pick the right tempos, never going overboard to prove their historical accuracy yet keeping the pace vigorous at all times. Everything about the performance, in fact, appears just right.

The coupling is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major, K. 482, written in 1785. Although only a year separates the two concertos on the program, No. 22 sounds the more mature and certainly the more weighty. No. 22 seems more inventive than No. 18 as well, with Mozart varying the overall texture of the sound more than usual. Indeed, even the soloist's entrance into the proceedings seems to have little to do with the introduction, the composer varying things so much. It's both enterprising and refreshing. More important is that neither Brautigam nor Willens tries to overemphasize Mozart's intentions, keeping everything on a even keel. Still, they preserve all of Mozart's character and color in the piece.

Mozart's father remarked that at the première of No. 22 the audience demanded a repeat of the second-movement Andante. One can understand their appreciation for the music's pathos and passion, although Brautigam never strives for any overt sentimentality here. The finale goes as expected, full of boundless good cheer as it bounces merrily along, Brautigam lending the affair a delicate virtuosity.

Producer Ingo Petry and engineer Thore Brinkmann recorded the concertos at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany in December 2012. I listened to the two-channel SACD stereo layer of this hybrid, two-channel/multichannel SACD and thought the sound was excellent. As usual with a BIS recording, there is plenty of room resonance to provide a realistic setting, yet not so much that it clouds the transparency of the music. The orchestra appears well spread across the sound stage, with good depth and air to the instruments. When the fortepiano enters, it shows a firm presence and a well-integrated position relative to the ensemble, not too close to the listener or too distant. Some people might prefer a sharper, more-detailed sound, but this is more reminiscent of what a person would hear live, so I'm all for it (especially when at the same time we don't have to put up with the noise of a live audience).

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa