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Forty Years in Perspective – The BIS Label’s Pianists

It is always a pleasure to congratulate a person who spent forty years in business, regardless of their trade. Therefor it was a very special moment for Piano Street when we got the chance to talk to Robert von Bahr, Founder of BIS Records, about the past, present and the future.
We highly appreciate BIS’ and eClassical’s free bonus track and special product prices to all Piano Street’s readers worldwide:

Six BIS Pianists – Introductions and Selected Recordings

Scriabin: Sonata no. 9 “Black Mass”
Yevgeny Sudbin – introduced by BIS A&R Director Robert Suff
      1. Pianostreet-Sudbin.mp3
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Beethoven: Sonata Opus 57 “Appassionata”, 1st mvt.
Ronald Brautigam – introduced by BIS Founder Robert von Bahr
      2. Pianostreet-Sudbin.mp3
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Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F
Freddy Kempf – introduced by BIS A&R Director Robert Suff
      3. Pianostreet-Kempf.mp3
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Ligeti: Musica Ricercata No. 7, Cantabile, molto legato
Fredrik Ullén – introduced by BIS Founder Robert von Bahr
      4. Pianostreet-Ullen.mp3
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Debussy: Prelude No. 10 (La cathédrale engloutie)
Noriko Ogawa – introduced by BIS A&R Director Robert Suff
      5. Pianostreet-Ogawa.mp3
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Schnittke: Sonata for cello & piano No. 1, 2nd mvt: Presto
Roland Pöntinen – introduced by BIS Founder Robert von Bahr
      6. Pianostreet-Pontinen.mp3
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Interview with BIS Founder Robert von Bahr

Patrick Jovell: BIS is known as a recording company renowned for its impeccably high standards of quality, aknowledged internationally with numerous awards for its achievements. And next year, 2013, marks the 40th year for you in the record industry.
Could you summarize the developments within your business during this period of time, not only concerning the advancements from vinyl-LPs to CD-discs and further to the increasing concentration on digitalized production, but also how the prerequisites or conditions for continued endeavors have changed?

BIS founder Robert von Bahr

BIS Founder Robert von Bahr

Robert von Bahr: BIS has always been open for technical advances, as long as they don’t detrimentally influence the music or the sound quality. Thus, in the era of the LP:s (anyone remember them?) we released Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, played on the piano by a pianist with two hands, three feet and a nose on a 45-rpm LP, to avoid any distortion in the violently loud and deep passages. We also embraced the DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) system, a TELDEC in Germany invention that really enhanced the LP sound. We were the first label in the world that completely abandoned the LP in favour of the CD. Nowadays we are the biggest producer in the world of SACD (Super Audio CD), a system that allows us to present the music in high-resolution and in surround as well, while still being compatible to CD sound for those that don’t have access to an SACD player. And, finally, we have totally rethought the principles of downloading, to liberate us from the straitjacket of the pop world’s stubborn track/”song” thinking of 3,5 minutes’ duration, and created a site that operates on the specific conditions for classical music, and in high-res at that, at less than the usual market price. BIS uses technology, not to create an interpretation, but to let the composers and artists have their say without the interference of technical limitations. We, as producers and recording engineers, do not invade upon the territories of the composers and artists – we just make a good sound and then let them reign supremally, in that we present the complete original dynamics as they perform it. This may well lead to the misconception that we record on a lower level than others, which is complete baloney, since our loudest passages are the maximum allowed on a disc. However, since we don’t interfere with what the artists do, the softer passages may well be softer than the usual compressed products in the market, and therefore may lead people to believe that the truth is, in fact, untrue, whereas the compressed versions are the real thing. Oy vey!! Of course, if one wants to enjoy music while frying bacon or taking a shower, there is something in what they say, but those people aren’t the ones we cater for.

PJ: How does establishing oneself in the market today compare with how it was when you started?

RvB: Actually, I don’t see a difference at all. In classical music, it is the quality that counts, not any gimmickery. Probably we should be more updated on social media than we are, and possibly in modern times the level of the concentration span has decreased in the times of the increasing “spotifying” of everything to 20-second snippets.

PJ: In this article we meet some of the BIS-pianists, and particularize the interplay between the artist´s unique attributes, repertoire, career and future projects leading to an exciting and creative recording process. This constitutes the firm´s ”piano-profile”. Tell us how your relationships with pianists unfold and develop, seen from the perspective of a business concern.

RvB: Also here we don’t maintain that we’re sitting on all the answers to Universe’s big secrets. We can, given our experience, which is uniquely long (with its 40 years BIS is the oldest classical label in the world, led by its Founder), quite quickly identify different artists and their strengths and decide, if and where their talent could be mutually profitable, both artistically and, not to put too fine a point at it, monetarily. We are loathe to employ artists for a one-off production, which inevitably increases the height of the threshold that they have to pass in order to become a BIS Artist, but, having managed that first hurdle, the ambition is to create a fruitful and durable relation – a symbiosis that allows the artist to develop hand in hand with an extention and broadening of BIS’s repertoire. All the pianists presented here belong to the core BIS artists and have recorded for us during long periods of time (between 8 and
29 years). These artists complement each other – indeed that was a prerequisite to work with them at all – but, inevitably, there are duplications of standard repertoire, albeit done rather differently. The operational word is, though, a common artistic development in symbiosis, for the mutual good of everyone concerned, and foremost the happy listener.

PJ: We will soon be able to read here on Piano Street an article about the non-compressed audio format FLAC and about your involvement in the digital distribution service which is offered by eClassical.com. How do you feel about the consensus concerning sound in mainstream production where compression is if anything more of a rule than an exception? How does audio compression affect our listening?

RvB: When it comes to sound quality and dynamics, we at BIS have but one answer: whatever the composers demanded and the artists performed. We simply don’t tamper with whatever the artists are doing. That’s the only way I know how to be honest, both to the artists and to the listener. Why should the listener be presented anything that has gone through the “filter” of a recording engineer, with or without talent, when it comes to the dynamics? And, having arrived at the conclusion that this simply is not on, we can extend this to the other part of sound quality as well, like bit-rate. Previously there were technical limitations that one simply had to accept, but, with the ever-increasing speed of Internet, this no longer is so. Therefore, after looking at what the “normal” sites are offering people in the form of down-loading, especially with the sharply constricted dynamics and the tampering through compression, I decided that this is not for us, at least not without giving the public-at-large an alternative to choose from. Therefore BIS bought eClassical.com and completely rethought the principles, after which a downloading site should be run – for classical music, nota bene – and implemented the changes, all of which are devised for two purposes:
– to present the music completely unadulteredly and
– in a way that makes sense for the customer from the points of view of expeditiousness, quality, guarantee and price.

PJ: We who listen to productions from BIS other than piano are fascinated by the exciting artistic collaborations which take place. We have been able to hear, for example, symphony orchestras from Sao Paolo or Malaysia, opera voices from Cape Town or Beethoven´s symphonies with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, or Mahler´s Das Lied von der Erde sung in Chinese and with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Tell us about your thoughts and considerations behind these unique international and cultural synergistic results.

RvB: I simply believe that music is one of the very few cross-cultural languages – art and architecture being other examples – around. I also – and vehemently at that – do NOT subscribe to the notion that one has to be Norwegian to play Grieg or Finnish to play Sibelius (if that were the case, where should one have been born to do justice to Stravinsky? Russia, France, Switzerland, America?). On the contrary, I believe that the cultural baggage that every musician has somewhere, can cross-fertilize with the ones that the composers had and lead to something new and perhaps more interesting than if the music is performed “like it always was”. Therefore I consciously make odd couplings, like the ones enumerated above, or “worse” (like a Japanese pianist playing Russian repertoire with a Singaporean orchestra and a Chinese conductor, recorded by German producers for a Swedish label). Sometimes this really turns out well, like with the leading Bach Cantata cycle in the world, performed almost exclusively by Japanese (sic!), and very rarely not (but what evolution is there, if one doesn’t risk anything??). I also believe strongly in international understanding through performing together – if someone had put Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in a room and told them that they couldn’t exit it until they had learned how to play a string quartet movement, there would have been no WWII, of that I am sure. How the Nobel Prize Committee in Norway could give the Peace Prize to EU rather than to Barenboim will go down as one of the big mysteries of all time.

BIS News
eClassical’s Christmas Calendar


Exciting Time Travels – Exclusive Interview with Ronald Brautigam

Ronald Brautigam talks to Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell about his love and interest in period instruments as well as the modern grand piano.

Patrick: We know you as one of the most important contemporary fortepiano exponents of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, which has resulted in your recording these composers’ complete sonatas on the BIS label. I have also experienced your outstanding chamber music collaborations, for example with violininst Isabelle van Keulen and your numerous prizewinning recordings of concerti on a modern grand piano. Your complete Beethoven piano concertos project has also achieved completion, and the recording of the E-flat major concerto no. 5 and Choral Fantasy has been available in record stores since July. One might say that you are a pianist with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. How did your love for and interest in period instruments emerge?

Ronald: The music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven has always held a special place in my repertoire, long before I became interested in the fortepiano. It was during the 1980s that playing Mozart’s piano sonatas became something of a problem: I had a clear idea of how the music should sound, but somehow the end result never matched my preconceived interpretation. The music sounded too big for what it was, and trying to make it lighter only resulted in the sort of polished and overly elegant Mozart I absolutely can’t stand. It was not until in 1987 that I came across fortepiano builder Paul McNulty (www.fortepiano.eu), who had his workshop in Amsterdam at the time. He invited me to come and have a look at his newly-finished 5-octave Walter copy. As soon as I started playing some Mozart, it all fell into place: the lightness I had been looking for was there, along with a sense of drama, of cheekiness and excitement I had never dreamed to find in these sonatas. All in all it only took me half an hour of playing to order an instrument from Paul; a decision that definitely changed my life. I had originally planned to keep my fortepiano at home, to use it as a reference when preparing a concert on modern piano. But in the end I found myself behind the fortepiano most of the time, and decided to start using it for concerts. The beginning of a long and happy relationship!

Patrick: All pianists, to different extents, have personal experience of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven sonatas throughout their lives, including discussions and reflections about how to read the score. As a top level pianist, you have played these sonatas since childhood. How do you approach the text when you prepare a work on the fortepiano as compared with how you prepared it previously? Are there basic rules or inevitable facts that have to be considered in a fortepiano situation?

Ronald: There is not really a lot of difference in my text approach on fortepiano or on modern piano. The text is the most important information the composer left us, and tells us everything we should do, whether on a Walter or a Steinway. Playing on a fortepiano, the instrument the composer had in mind, we can simply interpret the score as it is written. It is when playing a modern piano that we have to rethink some elements of the score, make a translation, as it were. Playing Beethoven on a fortepiano takes the instrument to its dynamic limits, which is not advisable to try on a Steinway!

Patrick: So how does the actual translation/transition work in practice?


Ronald: We have to convert the original dynamics into something that works equally well on a modern instrument, and the same goes for the accents, sforzati, etc. This practically means that you have to be more careful on a modern piano, without losing the excitement and dynamic drama of playing a period instrument. I tend to use far more leggiero and staccato playing on a modern piano, to suggest some of the crispness of a fortepiano, and I try to avoid the big, romantic sound as much as possible. But in the end the intrinsic qualities of whichever instrument you use should never be thrown overboard. Play a Steinway as a Steinway, play a Walter as a Walter.

Patrick: Your intentions as an interpreter clearly have to be treated differently in various situations. Can you elaborate on this?


Ronald: Well, I have also found that each instrument has its own sense of ‘tempo giusto’. An adagio will somehow be played slower on a Steinway than on a Walter, simply because of what the ear picks up. A performer constantly assesses the sound coming out of the piano, is forever making small adjustments to tempo and dynamics according to what he hears. When a note dies out on a fortepiano, the following note in the melody will come sooner, to keep the melody flowing. On a Steinway, where the length of the melody note seems endless, the timing of the following note will naturally be different, resulting in a slightly slower tempo. The much lighter action of a fortepiano makes for crisp, fast tempi that could never work on a modern piano.
The third, and final element where there is a difference in approach is articulation. Owing to its quick damper action and shorter tone, a fortepiano has a speaking quality, whereas a modern piano is by nature a singing instrument. Articulation on a fortepiano is an organic part of its speech, on a Steinway it can sometimes feel a bit ‘amputated’: just as the tone is getting ready to give it a go, it is cut off. This asks for a slightly more conservative handling of the articulation on a modern piano; as I said before, never do anything against the character of an instrument. Again, you have to make a translation of the original articulation into something that suits a modern piano.

Patrick: Thank you for taking the time talking to us and good luck with your projects and concerts!

Ronald: You’re welcome, the pleasure was all mine!

Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano, and Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens recording Mozart Piano Concertos in Cologne, November 2009:

Video from BBC, Ronald Brautigam plays W.A. Mozart´s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, mvt 3 performed on a pianoforte:

More Ronald Brautigam on fortepiano:

Mozart – Complete Keyboard Sonatas & Variations

Haydn – Complete Music for Solo Keyboard
Beethoven: Complete Works for Solo Piano, vol. 8


Brautigam Summing-Up Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra

Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra Now Available

For the final instalment of his survey of Beethoven’s works for piano and orchestra on BIS label, Ronald Brautigam has saved ‘the final crowning glory of his concerto output’, as Beethoven specialist Barry Cooper describes the Fifth Piano Concerto in his liner notes. The work has become known as the Emperor Concerto, as it shares its key (E flat major) as well as a certain sense of power and grandeur with the Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’. It is coupled on this disc with the Choral Fantasia – an intriguing work scored for piano, orchestra and chorus with vocal soloists. The explanation for this unusual combination is that Beethoven wanted to provide a fitting finale for one of his mammoth concerts in Vienna. The concert, which took place on 22 December 1808, included performances of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies as well as the Fourth Piano Concerto and two movements from the Mass in C major; the Choral Fantasia thus brought all of the evening’s performers on stage once more before the end of the concert.

The individual discs in Ronald Brautigam’s series have received numerous distinctions, including a MIDEM Classical Award in 2010, and his performances have been weighed against classic recordings by legendary pianists. “Brautigam’s account [of Concerto No. 1] compares with Richter’s for sparkle, with Pollini’s for cleverness, and with Michelangeli’s for liveliness… The performance of Beethoven’s Third Concerto that follows is even better”, wrote the reviewer on website AllMusic.com, while the one in Gramophone deemed that the recording of the Second Concerto was “almost as good as Serkin’s account with Ormandy, which is saying something!”
In the review in International Record Review of the penultimate volume, finally, the series so far was summed up as follows: “For my money, Brautigam and Parrott are setting a new bench-mark, and I eagerly await the final instalment.”

It is of course a great pleasure to be able to announce the release of that longed-for disc, with Ronald Brautigam, the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Parrott in their usual top form, and with the brief but crucial appearance of the eminent Eric Ericson Chamber Choir in the Choral Fantasia.

As mentioned in February on Piano Street’s blog, Brautigam’s prizewinning CD is one of the recordings which Ronald Brautigam made for the Swedish recording company BIS. This CD contains the two earliest composed concerti of which the second piano concerto was written earlier than the first and then edited later which explains the numbering. The first of these is the Piano Concerto in E flat major, WoO4, sometimes referred to as Beethoven’s “Concerto No.0”. Composed in 1784, when Beethoven was only 13 years old, it is a fully developed three-movement work that displays much imagination, harmonic control and sense of form, as well as a striking level of virtuosity. The work has survived in a contemporary copy of the piano part, incorporating directions showing that the original orchestra consisted of two flutes, two horns, and strings.
For this recording Ronald Brautigam has made his own reconstruction of the orchestral score. The third work on the disc is also one without opus number, namely the Rondo in B flat major, WoO6, composed during the long gestation of Concerto No.2 and probably at one stage intended as the finale of this work.

Brautigam´s reconstructed E flat major, WoO4, the score is available for purchase from Alba Music Press

Other releases in the Beethoven Complete Concertos series on BIS

Read more:
Exciting Time Travels – Exclusive Interview with Ronald Brautigam


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