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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795, rev. 1800) [37:37]
Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1787-98) [28:03]
Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-1803) [35:56]
Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 68 (1804-1807) [32:54]
Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [38:14]
Stewart Goodyear (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Andrew Constantine
rec. 2018, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100127 [3 CDs: 2:52:44]

I had planned to leave Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations - and the inevitable torrent of reissues and new releases - to others, more steeped in his oeuvre than I am. That was until I discovered the Canadian pianist-composer, Stewart Goodyear, had recorded the five piano concertos. I first encountered this astonishing artist playing his own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s festive ballet, The Nutcracker (Steinway & Sons). What a cracker that turned out to be, revealing a pianist of boundless energy and insight. And although released by Steinway, it was recorded by Sono Luminus, at their studios in Boyce, Virginia, which ensured top-notch sonics, too. All of which guaranteed the album a place among my top picks for 2017.

A terrific calling card, to be sure, but the Beethoven concertos are another matter entirely. True, the catalogue groans under the weight of countless recordings of these pieces, yet only a handful have achieved legendary status. Among the latter, surely, must be the Stephen Kovacevich/Colin Davis series, made with the BBC Symphony and LSO in the 1970s (Philips). Stephen Bishop, as he then was, gives bold, big-boned performances, with a sound to match, which may not appeal to those who prefer a lighter, HIPP-inspired touch. Still, that extraordinary cycle bowls me over every time I hear it. Interestingly, Kovacevich was in his early thirties at the time, Goodyear not a lot older when he recorded the set over 10 days in September 2018. (The BBC National Orchestra of Wales needs no introduction, but the British-born, US-based conductor, Andrew Constantine, is new to me.)

CD1 offers beautifully sprung accounts of the first two, rather Mozartian, concertos. Right from the start, the BBC NOW winds are a delight, the conductor adopting an easy, genial approach that segues very nicely with Goodyear’s Puckish manner in the outer movements and his hushed, finely shaded playing in the middle ones. It helps that engineer Simon Eadon achieves fine balances in both works, piano and orchestra very ‘present’ throughout. Even better, the musicians all have plenty of room in which to ‘breathe’. (More on that later.) But it’s the spontaneous, open-hearted soloist who really inveigles his way into one’s affections, his felicitous phrasing and sure sense of scale are simply captivating. And the fact he doesn’t strike poses makes for fresh, unforced readings of these engaging scores. Even at this early stage, Goodyear and Constantine appear to have forged a close rapport, which augurs well for the rest of this series.

Their collective take on the third and fourth concertos, on CD2, confirms the strength of that partnership. The orchestra is leavening in the extended introduction to No. 3, the soloist rising to the occasion with a splendid opening statement. As ever, Goodyear wears his virtuosity so lightly, and that allows listeners to make out musical structures and interactions that are so easily swamped in the rush to excite and impress. As much as I admire Kovacevich and Davis in this repertoire, they often fall into this trap; in the process, ear-pricking detail and colour is also lost. (The ‘broad-brush’ Philips sound doesn’t help.) Goodyear and his accompanist rather prove the point in this middle concerto, with a multi-hued Largo, full of discovery and delight. The mood here is gravely beautiful, and Goodyear responds to this with all the sensitivity and insight I’ve come to expect of him. As for Constantine, he coaxes ravishing sounds from his players, the overall presentation as elegant as one could wish. (The quietest passages, in particular, are magically caught.) In contrast, the witty finale is both virile and varied, it’s deliciously done. Indeed, I can’t recall a more joyful sign-off to No. 3 than this.

Goodness, can this set get any better? As if to emphasise this is about the music and nothing else, Constantine and his doughty band find a degree of subtlety and nuance in the first movement of No. 4 that’s most welcome. Goodyear digs deep too, the middle movement burning with a warm, enduring light. And the finale? Well, it’s beautifully articulated, with a strong, sustained pulse and a thrilling sense of controlled exhilaration. At this juncture I want to comment further on the sound, which, in its 16/44.1 ‘CD quality’ form is very good indeed. And while I’d be the first to admit that ‘upgrading’ to a high-res version isn’t always desirable, in this case I think it is, especially in the later, weightier concertos. For instance, the slightly ‘soft’ bass in the 16/44.1 download firms up nicely in 24/96, instrumental separation is better, and there are more clues as to the hall’s acoustics. Not a deal-breaker perhaps, but I found these gains enhanced my enjoyment of this already fine release.

The Kovacevich/Davis cycle was crowned by a quite magnificent ‘Emperor’; indeed, it’s as commanding a performance of this great concerto as I’ve ever heard, blazing as it does from first to last. True, the Goodyear/Constantine version may not burn quite so fiercely in the outer movements, but what it may lack in heat it more than makes up for in light. That’s due, in part at least, to Orchid’s more forensic recording; for the rest, it’s the ever-present sense of give and take that exists between soloist and conductor that ensures every expressive possibility is explored to the full. (As for essential grandeur, it’s there when required.) One of the most memorable features of that Philips performance is the duo’s peerless account of the slow movement. That said, these newcomers, with their deep introspection and a soft, singing line, aren’t far behind. As for that big, jubilant finale, Goodyear and Constantine give it all the thrust and power it needs. Factor in Joanna Wyld’s decent liner-notes and you have a truly chart-topping set.

Glorious, life-embracing performances, very well recorded; surely a high point of the composer’s birthday year (or any other, for that matter).

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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