Ronald Brautigam / Michael Alexander Willens / Kölner Akademie

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 19 & 23

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The Mozart concerto recordings by fortepianist Ronald Brautigam and the Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens have been quite controversial, and the potential general buyer is advised to sample extensively if possible in order to determine which camp he or she might fall into. On one hand are several positives. The historical forces are accurate, with a small but not minuscule orchestra and a delightful, sparkling copy of an Anton Walter piano by Americo-Czech builder Paul McNulty. The very brisk Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K. 459, has an original treatment of the movement tempi: the opening movement is taken at a clip considerably faster than its Allegro marking would indicate (there's some evidence that Mozart intended it this way), and that gives Brautigam and Willens room to take the unusual middle movement at its marked Allegretto speed. The entire performance is sharp, edgy, and perfectly coordinated, and BIS' hybrid SACD engineering, executed at a Deutschland Radio chamber music studio in Cologne and sampled here on a good conventional stereo, is superb. Then there are aspects many listeners will perceive as negatives. These include an expressionless dryness that goes well beyond what one expects from the elimination of vibrato in the strings, a performance of the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, that is seemingly insensible to the music's striking chromaticism (which would have shocked Mozart's contemporaries), and a general distaste for any lyrical feeling. The last of these is obviously a matter of individual preference, but listeners should know what they're getting into. Approach with caution.

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