New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon
Thursday, 7 February 2019
Mendelssohn Piano Concertos Brautigam
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Rondo Brillant. Capriccio Brillant. Serenade
and Allegro Giojoso Ronald
Brautigam (pn), Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Die Kölner Akademie BIS 2264 (SACD:
Having recently completed a full Mozart piano concerto cycle, Ronald
Brautigam, Michael Alexander Willens, and Die Kölner Akademie now turn their attentions
to Mendelssohn. This well-filled disc covers the whole of Mendelssohn’s mature
output for piano and orchestra, with the exception of the unfinished E-Minor
Concerto No. 3. Also excluded are three early works, the Concerto for Piano and
String Orchestra and the two concertos for two pianos and orchestra. Even so,
the present collection—two concertos, a rondo, a capriccio, and a
serenade—makes for a logical and satisfying program. A Hyperion recording with
Stephen Hough (66969) claimed to be the first to bring Mendelssohn’s mature concertante
piano works together. Brautigam appears to be the first to have repeated the
program, although it is also represented by a collection of Rudolf Serkin
reissues (Alto 1319), and both Benjamin Frith (Naxos 8550681) and Regina Schirmer (Berlin Classics 1775) have
recorded discs featuring four of the five works. It is also worth noting that
Brautigam has recorded the two concertos before with BIS, a modern-instrument
version with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Lev Markiz released in 1995
This time round, Brautigam and co. perform on period instruments. That
is still an unusual approach with Mendelssohn, previously confined mostly to
the symphonies (Brüggen, Heras-Casado) and oratorios (McCreesh, Herreweghe).
Brautigam here performs on a 2010 copy by Paul McNulty of an 1830 Pleyel. The
photograph in the liner shows a sturdy concert grand in dark mahogany, its
aesthetic all straight lines and hard angles where a modern grand is curves.
On a modern piano, most of this music is a flurry of light, bubbling
passagework, in which the individual notes blur into the resonance. But this
piano, at least under Brautigam’s fingers, gives a different effect. Its
resonance is more selective and its sound more constrained. Brautigam is able
to make phrases flow, but the attacks on individual notes are always a part of
the sound picture in a way that modern-piano renderings avoid. The advantage is
a greater sense of detail, focusing particular attention on the melodic
ornaments. The bass end of the piano has a distinctive resonance too, solid and
projecting well, but sufficiently nimble for the cascading arpeggio figures
that make up so much of the piano writing.
A legitimate question might be asked about how much the performers have
changed their approach to account for the 50 or so years between the Mozart
they were previously recording and the Mendelssohn here. Brautigam plays a
different piano (though from the same maker: They are all shown on his website,
ronaldbrautigam.com), and the string complement of the orchestra has, no doubt,
been expanded. But we are still in strict no-vibrato territory, an approach which,
whatever its historical veracity, stands out more in the Romantic repertoire
than in the Classical. That said, in several movements, the strings indulge in
a modest but satisfying portamento. This is particularly apparent in the Adagio second movement of the Second
Piano Concerto, this a real gem from both Brautigam and the orchestra.
The studio recording was a joint venture by Deutschlandfunk and BIS, and
producers from both companies are credited. The sound is clear with excellent
balance between soloist and ensemble, though the winds and timpani seem
surprisingly reticent, as if their levels have been significantly lowered in postproduction.
The surround sound is effective but not emphatic, the piano spread across the
front speakers, but the orchestra mostly confined to left and right.
For a composer so well-represented in the catalog, this is an
impressively original project. Brautigam has a solid reputation, but mostly for
Classical-era repertoire. He looks set to become a pioneer of Mendelssohn on
period pianos, and other recent recordings include two volumes of Songs Without Words (BIS-1982, BIS-1983)
and a disc of cello sonatas with Christian Poltéra (BIS-2187). It’s all music
that tends to rush past us in a flurry of cascading arpeggios and fleet,
transient melodies, so the opportunity to take stock with Brautigam, and to
hear so many of the details that otherwise pass us by, is surely welcome.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 42:5.