Following on from his
recording of the complete Beethoven
piano sonatas for ABC Classics in 1999
Gerard Willems has turned his attention
to those great masterpieces of classical
music literature, the five Beethoven
Willems plays a hand-crafted
piano made by Stuart & Sons of Australia
which is constructed from modern materials
such as zirconia, ceramics, stainless
steel and local timbers. The piano,
which has eight octaves and four pedals,
looks and sounds at times like a fortepiano.
In fact the soloist has described the
Stuart piano, as having a clarity and
sound not unlike a fortepiano and combining,
"the clarity, refinement and tonal
range that these concertos demand, from
the mellifluous to the monumental, from
classical restraint to Romantic fervour.
Above all it possesses the right sound
to blend perfectly with the orchestra."
Some listeners may not like this often
fortepiano-like timbre which is certainly
different from the modern concert grand
usually used in these works.
Composed in 1798 the
Piano concerto No.1, Op.15 in C major
was introduced in Prague with Beethoven
as the soloist. Willems’ playing is
excellent throughout and is exquisite
and most expressive in the concluding
The Piano concerto
No.2, Op.19 in B flat major from
1795 was actually the first of the concertos
to be composed and was premiered in
Vienna with the composer as the soloist.
Willems plays with the utmost sincerity
and conviction and is especially fine
in the anguished and heartfelt Adagio.
Beethoven completed his Piano concerto
No.3, Op.37 in C minor in 1800 performing
as soloist at its premiere in Wien.
I was impressed with the bright and
vigorous interpretation particularly
in the first movement Allegro con
Premiered in Leipzig
in 1807 with the composer as soloist,
the Piano concerto No.4, Op.58
in G major is a marvellous work
of lofty concepts and gallant utterances.
It is regarded by many commentators
as the finest of all the five concertos.
The tenderness and gentle serenity of
Willems’ playing in the Andante con
moto is outstanding.
There is no evidence that Beethoven
ever performed his Piano concerto
No.5, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ in E flat major,
which he composed in 1809. It was
premiered in Leipzig by Friedrich Schneider
in 1811. I just love the way Willems
plays with such masterly inspiration
and control in the final movement Allegro
to bring the concerto and the set to
a triumphant and satisfying conclusion.
The exceptionally crowded
market for versions of these Beethoven
masterworks is packed with worthy contenders.
My first choice would be the set of
the complete concertos from Alfred Brendel
with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
under Sir Simon Rattle on Philips 462
781-2. A close second choice would be
the interpretations from Stephen Kovacevich
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under
Sir Colin Davis on Philips 442 577-2
(concertos 1-4) and Philips 422 482-2
(concerto 5). These compelling sets
are justly popular first choices for
many and listeners will discover expansive
musical worlds and pianist brilliance
in interpretations that are awe-inspiring.
A recently released live set from Pierre-Laurent
Aimard and the Chamber Orchestra of
Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt on
Teldec Classics 09274 7334-2 has received
some first-rate notices and is certainly
well worth checking out.
The compelling, sincere
and satisfying interpretations from
Dutch-born Gerard Willems are certainly
very different from those of Brendel
and Kovacevich. There is little sense
of spontaneity, more accuracy than intensity.
These performances are controlled and
stylish rather than electrifying and
awe-inspiring. Therefore anyone looking
for super-charged performances of white-hot
intensity, filled with thrills and spills
and improvisatory daring should look
elsewhere. Personally I would have preferred
a softer-toned, richer sounding instrument
that would have conveyed more colour
but the Stuart piano still sounds pretty
good and is well suited to these works.
The Sydney-based chamber
orchestra Sinfonia Australis is under
the baton of Australian conductor Antony
Walker. They prove themselves to be
a most excellent orchestra with really
fine playing which is fresh and clean
and with a crisp attack. The Sinfonia
Australis use copies of period instruments
in the brass and timpani sections and
offer period-informed interpretations.
Occasionally the interpretation is not
to my taste such as in the playing at
the start of the final movement Rondo,
Allegro which seems laboured but
eventually settles down. Particularly
noteworthy is the opening movement Allegro
con brio of the Concerto No.3, Op.37
in C minor as a really fine example
of their high quality orchestral playing.
Recorded at the Eugene Goossens Hall
in Sydney, the sound quality is vivid,
immediate and full of presence.
This set was a pleasure
from start to finish. The quality of
the competition in this repertoire is
exceptionally fierce with Willems battling
against the cream of interpreters. His
endearing playing is compelling and
satisfying and of a consistently high
calibre. Well worth hearing and Beethoven
fans will be in their element.
information has been received
I read with interest
the review of the Complete Piano Concertos,
Gerard Willems piano, Sinfonia Australis/Antony
Walker, ABC Classics 980 046-5 by Michael
It must be difficult for reviewers to
make objective comments on the sound
produced by musical instruments within
the context of a performance. Good ears,
detailed knowledge of the mechanics
of music, performance craft and the
instruments technology are vast subjects
in themselves and to determine which
is producing the effect is often baffling.
Michael Cookson makes specific mention
of the Stuart & Sons piano Willems
chose to play for these recordings.
The technical description of the piano
seems to have been taken from general
press material and is not specific to
the instrument Willems used. I would
like to clarify some of the details
for those who are interested in the
sound of these new generation acoustic
This particular instrument does not
have partially stabilised zirconia or
alumina ceramics on the string terminating
knife edges. The key to the innovation
is a string coupling device that anchors
the music wire to the soundboard in
a vertical zigzag plane. In standard
pianos this is achieved using two horizontal
zigzag pins. The opposite coupling method
promotes very different attack and decay
The broad range of colour and other
acoustic characteristics Willems produces
from this piano are beyond the experience
of traditional piano listening and can
challenge ears accustomed to standard
instruments. Willems manipulates the
piano to produce the sounds he is seeking
including this ability to mimic the
fortepiano. The four pedals consist
of the usual sustain, selective sustain,
shift or una corda and dolce. The dolce
pedal reduces the distance of hammer
and key travel. When the dolce and/or
una chord pedals are engaged individully
or together it is possible to mimic
the sound characteristics reminiscent
of the fortepiano. Then come the cadenzas!
The 'fortepiano' disappears and there
is bravura modern piano with all its
power and harmonic integrity! The brilliance
of this instrument is almost impossible
to obtain from a standard piano without
harshness and other noise - this is
something that shocks until the ears
become accustomed to it. Soft, warm
sound is comfortable but two dimensional.
To my ears these recordings are unique
in that for the first time the piano
and orchestra display an eerie synthesis
and on repeated listening something
new can be heard and possibly learnt.
This recording is different from all
the others in that the solo instrument
is the voice of a new concept in piano
building, a new tonal aesthetic for
the twenty first century not the nineteenth!
I hope this conveys a different slant
on listening to these recordings. Tone
colour and aural beauty are to be found
in the harmonic and dynamic polarities.
Whereas, from a traditional perspective,
the ear is comforted by warmth and
roundness in the sound envelope.
Wayne Stuart oam