Ronald Brautigam / Michael Alexander Willens / Kölner Akademie

Beethoven: The Piano Concertos

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There's certainly no shortage of Beethoven piano concerto cycles, and the performer here, keyboardist Ronald Brautigam, even has one under his belt already. That set, however, was played on a modern piano, and here Brautigam uses a pair of fortepianos, a copy of a Walther instrument from 1805, and, for the last two concertos, a Graf fortepiano from 1819, a powerful instrument that is less commonly heard. This is desirable; too many historical-performance complete sets use the same instrument for music covering a long time span. Another attraction here is that for this cycle, Brautigam is teamed with the historical instrument group Die Kölner Akademie and conductor Michael Alexander Willens, with whom Brautigam has worked repeatedly. Consider the earlier concerto outer movements (perhaps the finale of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19) for the clockwork coordination effect. There's a certain clockwork quality to the whole that may be a matter of taste: Brautigam was a student of Rudolf Serkin, and his playing may put one in mind of what might have happened if Serkin had lived long enough to encounter the historical performance movement. His slow movements are rather brisk, and everything is determinedly anti-Romantic. However, Brautigam and Willens do accomplish what they set out to do, as do the BIS engineers, who create a spacious (perhaps too spacious) sound with subtle balances between fortepiano and orchestra. This will be best for those who like their fortepiano performances well to the dry side.

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