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Wilms: The Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 - Brautigam, Willens

Wilms: The Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 - Brautigam, Willens

BIS  BIS-2504

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Wilms: Piano Concertos in E major, C major and D major

Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano)
Kölner Akadamie
Michael Alexander Willens (conductor)


Born in the vicinity of Cologne, only two years after and some sixty km distant from Beethoven, Johann Wilhelm Wilms was once a musical force to be reckoned with. In Amsterdam, where he lived from the age of 19, his music was actually performed more frequently than Beethoven’s at one period, and his orchestral works were played in such musical centres as Leipzig. Besides chamber music and solo sonatas Wilms composed several symphonies and solo concertos (for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and cello) as well as piano concertos for his own use, five of which were published between 1799 and 1820. (Two more have been lost.) He also appeared regularly as soloist in concertos by other composers.

But already during his lifetime Wilms began to retreat from the public eye, whether because of setbacks in his private life or because he was disillusioned with the superficial tastes of the Amsterdam audiences. By the time of his death in 1847, he was remembered almost exclusively as the composer of the then national anthem. In time for the 250th anniversary of Wilms’ birth, Ronald Brautigam has edited the five extant piano concertos by ‘the Dutch Beethoven’ and presents the first three here, with nos 4 and 5 to follow in a second volume. As on a number of previous, highly acclaimed releases, he is supported by the Kölner Akademie and Michael Alexander Willens.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - June 9, 2022

Over the years many ‘forgotten gems’ have passed my SACD player and in many a case, it was Michael Alexander Willens with his Koelnner Akademie, performing with exemplary finesse the artistic output of composers who happened to live in the shadow of the big names of their time. To be honest, not all of it was a ‘gem’. But with good musicians and ditto conductor, it was a pleasure to listen and to enjoy most of it.

I was pleased to learn that he, Willens, is back again with three piano concerti by the ‘forgotten’ Dutch composer (With German roots!) Johann Wilhelm Wilms, this time on the BIS label. One of them, Number 2, was also included in the ARS Produktion series mentioned above. Not with Ronald Brautigam, but with the Italian-Dutch pianist Paolo Giacometti. Interestingly, whilst the orchestra in both cases is the same, the musicians are not. However, an experienced conductor -and Willens fits that slot- is able to maintain the same high ensemble characteristics notwithstanding the gradual changes over time.

The three concerti are technically and musically not of the same level. The first is rather basic, and conceptionally mainly geared to soloistic prominence, whereas 2 and 3 are a level or two up the ladder of compositional skills. However, any suggestion that we are dealing with the Dutch Beethoven, is presumptuous, though it is quite possible that -at the time- he was more popular. Like many ‘shadow’ composers, much of his music was primarily meant ‘for the Bühne’. Seen in that light, BIS bringing it back to today's stage ought to be greeted with unanimous pleasure, especially with Brautigam at the piano-forte and Willens on the rostrum.

Yet, at the start of the first concerto, I was struck by an undernourished and flat soundstage that could hardly be explained by the small instrumental setting. Violins with a sharp edge, at times a sketchy deep bass line, and with retreated instruments in the middle. In public, the conductor is responsible for the overall balance; when recorded, the sound engineer is in command at the console. We must assume, and I do, that both shape the end result before the file goes to the pressing facility. What happened? The soundscape in the second certainly was an improvement, but in comparison to Willens’s previous recording of the same concerto for ARS, still lacked full, warm, and roomy sound. It left me with a big question mark.

Despite the less than usual BIS recording standard, we must welcome Vol. 1 of the full set of Johan Wilms’s 5 piano concerti for its joyful and refreshing playing by all concerned. I particularly liked number three. It fills an unjustified missing gap in the SACD catalogue.

In Horst A. Scholz’s liner notes one finds more and more detailed information about the first three concerti than anywhere else readily available. Wonderful reading.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2022 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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