I have seen Stephen Hough described as ‘the thinking person’s virtuoso’ and certainly that fits with what I have heard of his work, which has been chiefly in the Romantic repertoire, so I wondered how he would fare in the Beethoven concertos, with their great variety of moods and emotional range. His partner here, Hannu Lintu, I have heard in recent music, at which he shines, but not in the Viennese classics. In fact, he seemed a slightly odd choice as conductor for the Beethoven concertos; although presumably he has conducted them often enough in concert, this is the first time he has recorded any Beethoven.
Well, I am pleased to report that the partnership works well. Starting with the orchestral playing, there is not a trace of routine about it. The tempos are well chosen and the dynamics precisely observed. In particular there is nothing vague or splashy about the tuttis. The balance between the wind and the strings is good, which is important since Beethoven so often creates a dialogue between them. I sense that Lintu has reduced the strings for at least the first three concertos, but the balance also worked in the last two, where the string body seemed larger. Individual wind lines are finely played, and the numerous passages where the same line is doubled or trebled across different instruments sound very good.
Stephen Hough’s playing is a delight. He has a superb technique and tosses off the most awkward passages with aplomb, but that is almost taken for granted nowadays, where so many pianists have fine technical skills. However, that is just the beginning; he observes Beethoven’s instructions closely, as for example in the differences between forte, sforzando and fortissimo or between staccato, semi-staccato and legato phrasing. He balances the often chunky chords with great care. Both he and Lintu offer very clean playing, often light and limpid, and Hough uses the pedal sparingly. To answer my query about the emotional range of the concertos, he gives us wonderfully tender playing in the slow movement of the fourth concerto – the movement Liszt compared to Orpheus taming the beasts – and majestic playing in the fifth concerto, the so-called Emperor. He can also be delightfully playful and charming as in in the finales of the first two concertos, and gruff and stern in the C minor third concerto - and in the many decorative passages in which Beethoven often seems almost Chopinesque, he has a lovely sensitive touch.
In my detailed notes I find I have grouped the first three concertos together. Hough and Lintu do not try to expand them beyond their natural place as successors to Mozart’s concertos. The second concerto, actually the first written, goes back in its first drafts to Beethoven’s Bonn days but the composer reworked it in Vienna and eventually published it in 1800. It is a charming work which one should not take too seriously. The numbered first concerto is a more considerable work and with more elaborate piano writing. Hough uses Beethoven’s cadenzas. In both of these I particularly enjoyed the bounce that Hough and Lintu give in the rondo finales.
The third concerto is an example of Beethoven in his C minor mood, of which the Sonata pathétique and the fifth symphony are also examples, serious and rather stern and hard-driven. However, the slow movement is particularly beautiful with very ornate writing for the piano, which Hough handles most attractively. The finale is less severe than the first movement and there is some fine interplay between the soloist and the orchestra.
The performances of the first three concertos are very good, but those of the last two are even better. In fact, I don’t know when I last enjoyed them so much. The fourth concerto has always been my favourite of the set and I particularly liked Hough’s tender and limpid playing of the opening solo passage and the careful shaping of the passagework throughout. I have already praised the performance of the slow movement. The finale encompasses a wide range of moods including wit which occasionally threatens to get really serious but never quite does so, as well as cascades of arpeggios and much writing which needs to sparkle and indeed does so.
When I listened to the Emperor concerto, I realized that I had heard too many inflated performances which try to make it sound like Rachmaninov. I like Rachmaninov and so does Hough – he has recorded all four concertos – but he realises that this is something different. There is no lack of grandeur and majesty but there is also a fleetness of foot and a lightness of touch when needed. This is firmly middle period Beethoven with all the power and rhetoric which he used but it is never overblown or casual. Lintu complements this with precise and rhythmical orchestral playing and ensures that mysterious and evocative passages, such as the important one just before the end, when the piano is accompanied only by a solo bassoon, make their point without unnecessary emphasis.
The recording is nicely done, with plenty of bloom and the booklet gives useful background. I should add that Hough plays Beethoven’s cadenzas except in the second concerto, where he uses his own, perfectly appropriate, one. The third disc is inevitably rather short measure because, alas, Beethoven did not write a sixth concerto during his third period, but the price for the set reflects that.
There are many excellent recordings of the Beethoven concertos, and listeners can usually please themselves with the choice of soloist, orchestra and conductor. However, if you choose this one you will be very happy with it. It is a winner.
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