Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Koelner Akademie (conductor: Michael Willens) and Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) perform Mozart and Haydn at the 2016 Felicja Blumental Festival (Tel Aviv)

Maestro Michael Willens (

An event drawing a large audience to the 2016 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival (April 4th -9th, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) was “Mozart Concertos for Fortepiano” on April 6th in the Recanati Hall of the Museum. Performing in Israel for the first time, Ronald Brautigam (Holland) soloed in two Mozart concertos with the Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. The concert was supported by the Goethe Institute.

Die Kölner Akademie (the Cologne Academy) performs repertoire from the 17th to 21st centuries and on period instruments. In order to fully realize the composer’s intentions and present historically informed performance, the ensemble plays from Urtext editions and with the appropriate number of players for each work.  Receiving wide acclaim, the ensemble performs worldwide and has recorded more than 40 CDs. The Kölner Akademie is recording all 27 Mozart piano concertos with Brautigam as soloist on fortepiano and conducted by Michael Willens.  An American conductor based in Cologne Germany, Michael Alexander Willens, musical director of the Kölner Akademie, studied at the Juilliard School of Music (New York.) He also studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk. A conductor of international standing, Willens engages in performance of repertoire from the Baroque to today, but he is also at home in jazz and popular music.  Willens is dedicated to performing works of lesser-known contemporary American composers, premiering several of them.

The Tel Aviv program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Symphony No.29 in A-major K.201. Composed in 1774 on the 17-year-old composer’s return to Salzburg from a visit to Vienna with his father and scored for the usual Salzburg orchestra constellation - strings, two oboes and two horns – it is one of the masterpieces of Mozart’s youth. Delicate and contrasted, the Cologne orchestra’s reading of the work was accurate and dynamic, presenting the sunny disposition of the A-major tonality. The work’s inner turbulence and tenderness were initially somewhat underplayed. The instrumentalists’ playing of the impetuous final movement – Allegro non spirito – however did indeed highlight the work’s dramatic aspect, with vivid playing of the natural horns, their uniquely lyric, vocal quality pleasing throughout the evening.  Indeed, with the score’s pointed use of wind instruments, the Kölner Akademie’s very fine wind players infused rich textural content and light and shade to the playing of the symphony.

Mozart wrote Concerto in C-major K.246 in 1776 for Countess Antonia von Lützow, a niece of Mozart’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg; von Lützow was probably a pupil of Leopold Mozart.  What quickly became clear with this performance of the work was that Maestro Willens and Ronald Brautigam have worked much together, the small orchestra and fortepiano’s strategic- and carefully balanced timbres making for rewarding listening. In the second movement, they created a poignant mood piece prophetic of many great Mozart slow movements to come in the composer’s career. Brautigam engaged in the work’s filigree details and small gestures, his gentle flexing making for a live, spontaneous rendition. In the outer movements, the pianist’s joie-de-vivre connected with that of Mozart as he delighted the audience with much clean, agile and effortless passagework.

In a very different mood, Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.49 in F-minor “La Passione” (1768) was representative of a time in which Haydn was interested to explore his own potential for stormy or tragic expression, as influenced by the Romantic Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement, this resulting in his producing a series of exceptional symphonies in minor keys. With the title referring to the fact that the symphony was probably first performed on Good Friday, the form used is also the composer’s final reference to the earlier sonata da chiesa form. The mellow timbral quality of the kinds of instruments played by the Kölner Akademie befitted the work’s introspective aspect, its pathos (and occasional angry outbursts) making up the emotional agenda of Symphony No.49. All four movements are written in the minor mode. With its abrupt transitions, its sober Minuet and whirlwind drama of the final Presto, the only moment of repose and brightness (and appearance of the key of F-major) was provided by the happier Trio of the Minuet. The natural horns contributed much to the work’s ominous agenda.  A beautifully crafted rendition, Michael Willens and his players gave expression to the work’s austere and intense beauty.

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna, “the land of the piano” as he referred to Vienna in a letter to his father in June 1791, establishing his career there as a pianist. His Piano Concerto in E-flat major K.449 (1784), was dedicated to his piano/composition student Barbara Ployer, daughter of a tax collector and timber merchant, but, more importantly, the niece of court councillor Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, the agent of the Salzburg court in Vienna. Clearly a fine pianist, she premiered it at a private concert, with the composer as soloist in its first public airing. The latter event coincided with Mozart’s realization of his own greatness as a composer; the E-flat Piano Concerto was the first work the composer entered into a thematic catalogue he was to keep until his death.  The concerto, a work of modest scale and sonority and the shortest of his mature concertos, bristles with life and surprises, and the substantial, beguiling piano role was taken on by Brautigam with zest. His agility and clean passagework in the opening Allegro vivace were threaded effectively into the general score and partnered well with the orchestra, Brautigam offering subjective expression in its cadenza. The Andante followed with moving, intimate and highly expressive songfulness, its subtle harmonies graced with lavish embellishments.  Under the fingers of Ronald Brautigam, the final Allegro non troppo, sounding precise and balanced, once more attested to the articulacy and exciting sound of the fortepiano, as Brautigam and the orchestra entertained the audience with the movement’s rigour and charm. The concert offered listeners the rare opportunity of experiencing these works as Mozart and Haydn would have heard them.

Spending six months performing on the fortepiano and six on the modern piano, Ronald Brautigam (b. 1954, Amsterdam) first studied with Dutch pianist Jan Wijn, later studying in the UK and America. One of his teachers was Rudolf Serkin. He regularly soloes with European orchestras and is a devoted player of chamber music. His many recordings include the complete works of Mozart and Haydn on the fortepiano.

Ronald Brautigam (

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