Composers: Beethoven
Compositions: Piano Concertos Nos 1-5
Performers: Ronald Brautigam fp, Die Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens
Catalogue Number: BIS BIS2274 (2SACD)

A decade ago in the midst of recording his complete survey of Beethoven’s solo piano works on fortepiano, Ronald Brautigam, to the surprise of some, recorded the concertos on a modern Steinway with Andrew Parrott directing a modern orchestra in brisk and lucid ‘period aware’ performances.

Since recording the Mozart concertos on fortepiano with period band Die Kölner Akademie and Michael Alexander Willens, his fans will be pleased with this new set of the Beethoven. Using two Paul McNulty reproductions – of an 1805 Walter and 1819 Graf – Brautigam’s playing is as breathtakingly fleet and alert as ever, ready to exploit the distinct colours of the instruments’ registers; the Walter’s portly buffo bass, the Graf’s glittering moonlit treble and the gentle silvery una corda sonority banished from the modern piano.

Some may find the Cologne band’s period garb a little too hairshirt; Willens and the players make no concessions and are determinedly ‘period’ with a vengeance. Vibrato is totally banished, winds are lean and pallid (nice fruity bassoon though), strings are especially contentious – one man’s delicate and transparent is another’s thin and anaemic.

Make the mental adjustment and there is plenty to cherish. Brautigam’s dashing wit and bravura juxtaposed with the ensemble’s earnest sobriety gives a vivid sense of Beethoven putting a bomb under the classical conventions and banalities of his contemporaries. Listen to the set in chronological order and one can hear the instruments straining to keep up with the intent, the Fourth and Fifth concertos ready to burst at the seams but set in historical context Beethoven’s visionary genius shines through all the stronger.

Timbral specific delights are plentiful; the haunting descending scales of No 1’s first movement at 8’10” or the veiled una corda colour of No 3’s Largo at 3’53”. Willens lets the aerated textures reveal details so often glossed over, dabbing in wind chords with precise emphasis and translucent colours – he makes his point with gestures that are logical and innate, thankfully avoiding effete HIP mannerisms.

Tempi are brisk but not garbled. The slow movements sing with sylvan freshness, the rondo finales burble and babble with good humour. The minutiae are conveyed in gently lit clarity by the transparent recorded sound.

Attentive listeners will appreciate these performances of remarkable rhythmic acuity and subtle shadings. The sceptic might sneer and run a mile, but the connoisseur should revel in the plurality of performance practice in our time.

Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift