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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15 (1795) [34:14]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37 (1800) [32:12]
Ronald Brautigam (piano)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Parrott
rec. Louis de Geer Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, May 2007
BIS BISSACD1692 [67:16]
Experience Classicsonline

I have to confess to some surprise - bordering on disappointment - when I first received this latest Beethoven concertos issue from BIS. Having been greatly impressed with Ronald Brautigam’s still unfolding traversal of the solo works, I naturally assumed this new recording of concertos 1 and 3 would use one of the excellent Paul McNulty fortepianos that have become stars of the cycle, especially as his conductor is another period specialist. Not so. In a liner-note interview that BIS obviously feel is necessary to justify the change in policy, Brautigam gives a number of reasons why he has chosen a modern Steinway grand now he is onto the concertos, chief among them being that he feels ‘a lot of the passagework is very hard to hear when it is played on period instruments’. I cannot really accept this, given modern recording techniques and the excellence of the tone from McNulty’s modern copies. That said, Brautigam is the expert in this field and, as such, has adopted an approach that is likely to please a wider number of buyers, which is maybe BIS’s strategy.

It appears from Brautigam’s note that the musicians and recording team have opted to remove the lid from the Steinway and place the instrument within the orchestra rather than out front, as in a concert. He feels this makes for ‘a wonderfully interactive set-up…[with] chamber musical intimacy’. He’s certainly right there, though I feel this could also have been achieved with a period piano. Brautigam, needless to say, plays very much in the style we’ve become accustomed to, with superb dexterity, plenty of attack on fortissimos, real rhythmic urgency and a wide dynamic range. I’m not sure whether the modern piano has been voiced on the bright side, as Andras Schiff does these days, but it sounds splendidly alive and vivid, with none of the mushiness or ‘woolly’ quality that can afflict classical concertos on a modern grand. It also helps that Brautigam uses the sustaining pedal judiciously which, coupled with the same HIP approach from his conductor, gives these performances an edge over many rivals. Indeed, Parrott does what we now expect from a number of conductors (Mackerras, Rattle, Norrington) in getting the Norrköping players to use very little vibrato, shorten the phrase lengths and play with a general liveliness that is very invigorating; wind lines are crystal clear, brass rings out thrillingly when required, and timpani use sticks to great effect. Tempos are on the fast side but never overdone, except possibly in the finale to No.1, where even Brautigam’s technique is pushed to the limit, leading me to ponder once again whether the lighter fortepiano action would have made it sound more convincing.

Overall, the interpretations are very satisfying, the Mozartian heritage strongly brought out without diminishing the grandeur of these works. They seem broadly in line with some others I have come across, such as the Berezovsky/Dausgaard cycle on Simax, although side by side comparison seems to constantly favour the BIS disc, which enjoys a more immediate sound quality alongside more penetrating playing.

Concerto No.1 is almost all entirely successful and only that breathless finale could give any cause for concern, though the excitement is undeniable. Brautigam’s phrasing of the slow movement is exquisite and the string sonority at 6:54 into the first movement the equal of any band I’ve heard on disc, including the Concertgebouw for Perahia/Haitink (Sony). My eyebrows were raised slightly by one small textual point at about 4:20 in that same first movement: the little second subject cadential phrase on the piano is altered by lowering an upper F sharp in the right hand down to F natural. It may be something to do with the range of Beethoven’s instrument at the time of composition, as I’m told this happens on other recordings, but it’s the first time I’ve heard this in practice. The cadenza is the composer’s third one from 1809 and is a particularly grand and adventurous one.

The long opening tutti to Concerto No.3 is dramatically and convincingly shaped by Parrott and Brautigam relishes the challenges it throws up. It doesn’t necessarily displace other favourites, Perahia/Haitink being amongst mine, but there is a wonderful inevitability about this playing that is truly thrilling. Others may want that glorious largo, with its odd 3/8 time signature, to stretch out even more timelessly, but I personally prefer clean, clear phrasing that lets the music speak naturally, to over-indulgent wallowing, so this performance really works for me.

Overall, it’s very hard to fault this disc but - and it’s a big one – as a ‘conventional’ performance it does enter an exceptionally crowded field, whereas it may have become an easy front-runner if period instruments had been used. However, even if I feel BIS may have missed an opportunity here, I have already returned to this disc more than any other in my collection for a while, so the sheer vitality and magnetism of the music-making must have already worked their spell.

Tony Haywood


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