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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op 11 (WeV N.9) (1810) [18:50]
Piano Concerto No 2 in E flat major, Op 32 (WeV N.15) ((1811-12) [20:23]
Konzertstück in F minor, Op 79 (WeV N.17) (1821) [16:09]
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. November 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS-2384 SACD [56:18]

The indefatigable pianist Ronald Brautigam has followed up his splendid recent re-recording of the Mendelssohn piano concertos with this fine survey of Weber’s less celebrated examples. It is a mystery to me why these marvellously crafted, pianistically challenging and ear-catchingly memorable works aren’t much better known – whilst there have been a few recordings over the years they tend only infrequently to turn up on concert programmes. The same point could be made about the composer’s four piano sonatas; not least because Weber wrote as idiomatically and adventurously for the keyboard as one would expect from an individual who happened to be one of the foremost virtuosi of his day. One cannot help but wonder if Weber’s prowess as a pioneering composer for the stage has somewhat overshadowed his purely instrumental accomplishments.

The two numbered piano concertos were products of Weber’s mid-twenties; he designed them as virtuosic vehicles for his regular concert tours during this period. The Konzertstück emerged a decade or so later, during the years that would sadly constitute the composer’s maturity; five years later he would die prematurely of TB. The one movement form of this work renders it quietly revolutionary; it almost certainly influenced Liszt’s two concertos, especially the first – indeed Weber was always a favourite of the Hungarian showman.

As far as competition is concerned, the most accomplished rival recording is almost certainly Nikolai Demidenko’s showstopping contribution to Hyperion’s gargantuan Romantic Piano Concerto series (Volume 10 on CDA 66279, with regal accompaniment provided by Sir Charles Mackerras and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – review). Incredibly this disc is by now more than a quarter of a century old. Listening to both the major interpretative difference one detects is that Demidenko (and Mackerras) afford Weber’s delicate slow movements a tad more expressive breadth, but that is merely an observation as opposed to a criticism of the new issue. In fact in terms of nuance Brautigam possibly has the edge; the Kölner Akademie’s rapt accompaniment (solo strings in No 1, solo group alternating with small orchestra in No 2) in each case is perfectly poised and appropriately weighted against the agreeably plump yet discreet sounds emanating from the Dutchman’s fortepiano. What is inarguable is that both Demidenko and Brautigam invest the indubitably jolly elements of the outer movements with bags of character. Whilst Demidenko has more room for colouristic and expressive manoeuvre on his superbly primed Steinway (truthfully caught and fastidiously balanced by the Hyperion engineers) Brautigam’s instrument (a wonderfully characterful Paul McNulty copy of a Conrad Graf fortepiano which originated at exactly the time of these compositions) has at its disposal an entirely different palette which suits Weber’s hyperactivity and sudden mood changes with equal aptness. The florid Beethoveniana of the opening movement of the second concerto benefits especially from its lustre.

Frankly one is blessed to have both these recordings, but I feel the new issue particularly scores in terms of BIS’s vivid recording of the fine Cologne Orchestra under the alert direction of Michael Alexander Willens. Weber’s little surprises really hit home – the mad dissonance in the orchestral introduction to the first concerto (Track 1 at 1:34), Brautigam’s bass trilling with the insouciant Boccherini-like carnival tune in the background (same track from 5:50), the distant drumroll before the piano’s entrance in the opening Allegro maestoso of the second concerto are but three examples. These sharp-intake-of-breath moments hit home with even more impact in BIS’s expertly realised surround layer – although there is much more to enjoy from the multi-channel manifestation than Weber’s occasional shock tactics. In fact this is one of the most convincing and stylishly produced SACD’s of Classical/Romantic repertoire that has come my way to date.

Brautigam’s and Demidenko’s accounts of the Konzertstück are pretty similar in interpretative terms. It was composed only a decade or so after the concertos yet it’s a very different beast that could almost be by another composer. The BIS booklet reiterates the rather cheesy (to our more cynical modern sensibilities at least) crusade-themed storyline which Weber apparently had in his head when compiling the Konzertstuck. It is best ignored altogether. Jean Pascal Vachon also claims the work as the first proper ‘Romantic’ piano concerto – a rather ponderous concept in itself as I don’t imagine the composer set out with that particular goal in mind. Although it is certainly fair to speculate (as Vachon does) that its single movement form probably provided the blueprint for Liszt’s first concerto, even if I might argue the Konzertstuck is a more coherent proposition than Liszt’s diffuse and wayward vehicle (please forgive the prejudice – I’ve really never got to grips with that particular repertoire staple!).

Willens is most attentive to the affettuoso marking in the opening section, as is Brautigam at his reiteration of the theme. There is a marked advance in the sophistication of Weber’s music in comparison to the concertos, but certainly not at the expense of expansive virtuosity – the tumbling repetitions, rapid passagework and demanding runs of the Allegro passionato are exciting and rather Mendelssohnian, and Brautigam laps them up. A tiny Adagio link acts as a bridge to the perky Tempo di Marcia which seems somewhat deadpan until Brautigam’s dramatic glissando entry. At once the music begins to breathe; the final heroic Piu mosso section evolves into a helter-skelter carnival which truly thrives in the surround layer.

In the final analysis listeners like myself are more frequently reaching the conclusion that we need to hear this repertoire on both modern and historical instruments. I’m pretty sure this exceptional recording is pioneering in the latter regard – those fortunate enough to have the right equipment will certainly enjoy the SACD option, but the stereo sound proves considerably fatter and more three dimensional than its Hyperion counterpart, although I will certainly not be parting with that disc. It goes without saying that Brautigam is always worth hearing in any case.

Richard Hanlon

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