This release has aroused some strong reactions in certain regions of the reviewing field – areas prone to becoming tetchy and irritable around authentic performance recordings. For this reason I wasn’t too worried about approaching this second volume of Mozart piano concertos from Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie.
These are indeed historically informed and/or authentic performances, with period instruments and little or no vibrato in either strings or winds. Fans of the fortepiano will know what to expect here as well. The trade-off in terms of sustaining quality, dynamic range and sheer sonority is that we have to accept these effects if attempting to revive the sound which Mozart would have expected to hear in his own lifetime. As usual in his BIS recordings of which there is now a healthy quantity, Ronald Brautigam performs with a fortepiano made by specialist maker Paul McNulty, in this case manufactured after an instrument from around 1795 by Anton Walter. This sounds fine enough, but even with the lightness of the accompaniment from Die Kölner Akademie it is clear how the gentler, more wooden sound of the fortepiano is at its best when sparkling in and above the textures of the orchestra rather than attempting the illusion of a singing voice.
Complaints have been made about the weight of the winds against the string sound in K 491, but to my ears this is only an issue with the quieter passages, where the strings are able to play really softly and the winds – also authentic instruments and with a limited dynamic range when it comes to the reeds – have to maintain a certain dynamic to balance amongst themselves. Fortepiano and harpsichord specialist Melvyn Tan recorded these works with Roger Norrington in the 1980s for EMI, and these performances are now available via Virgin Classics on a reasonably priced 2CD Veritas release. The London Classical Players have a generally warmer sound in this recording, and with a larger body of strings there is a little more volume and impact, but the differences are not so very huge. The tempi of the central Larghetto of K491 are also similar between the versions, Brautigam/Willens coming in with a tighter but not overly hasty 5:58, Tan/Norrington not too far behind with 6:23.
John Irving emphasises the grandeur of these concertos in the opening of his booklet notes, and the opening of K 503 is one of the grandest in Mozart’s output. The trick of portraying large scale with almost chamber-music forces almost comes off in this recording, but never quite lifts the spirit in the way some recordings have in the past, Tan/Norrington amongst them. Norrington’s largesse of scale does however come at the price of sounding a tad laborious, so amongst these titans of authenticity it is as usual a case of swings and roundabouts. Just to broaden my horizons a little more, I returned to the box set of Mozart’s complete concertos with fortepiano played by Viviana Sofronitsky on the Etcetera label (see review). The orchestra is certainly bigger-boned in the opening of K 503, and with the winds more recessed in the acoustic and the fortepiano at an arguably more realistic, i.e. softer balance the picture is quite different here when compared to Brautigam and Michael Alexander Willens. This set is by no means perfect, and as an eleven disc set by no means on a level playing field, but I still feel it has a good deal to offer if you want a one-stop version of Mozart’s concertos on fortepiano.
Brautigam’s recording is also part of a gradually unfurling cycle and the question is does it excite enough to make one eager to buy the next release? This is a question only you can answer for yourself. If you are anti-fortepiano or just find it doesn’t float your boat in the way a well-played modern instrument does then this recording won’t change your mind. I like to have both options available, but don’t find this BIS recording, fine as it is, to be special enough to embark on a new collection. I have nothing against the authentic sound and chamber-music qualities in these performances, but even with all SACD channels in full swing I can’t really say I became truly involved in these performances. There are plenty of nice things – the playing is good, the winds full of pungent colour and character – but there was nothing which really made me lean forward in my seat, or had me gripping the furnishings in an anguish of conflicting emotions. I discovered halfway through listening that I preferred it through speakers rather than on headphones which may or may not be a consideration – the stereo version is fine, the surround effect subtle and with BIS’s usual judicious good taste and feel for realism. Either way, were this to be the only fortepiano recording around I would be very happy with it, but it’s just not ‘different’ or deeply felt enough to make me feel I’m on that renewed voyage of discovery which makes me lose all sense of time and place while listening.
The choice of photo for the cover of this release may seem surprising, but it is part of a series: ‘From Forest to Concert Hall – build your own fortepiano’. As us country bumpkins can see, the man on the log is not wielding an axe, but what might technically be described as ‘a dirty great mallet’. This is for hammering in wedges with which to split a linden tree, which we are told is the raw material for the heads of the hammers which strike the strings.
If you are new to Mozart on fortepiano and are keen to add to your SACD collection then this developing BIS set may well fit the bill as a new project. If you know and love your Melvyn Tan or have Sofronisky or Jos van Immerseel’s set on Channel Classics on your list I doubt that this will revolutionise your thinking on these magnificent works.