To the best of my knowledge, Stephen Hough has not previously recorded any of the Beethoven piano concertos. Instead, he has waited a long time before committing these works to disc: he was 57 when these sessions took place. The timing has enabled Hyperion to release the recordings in the year that we celebrate Beethoven 250. His choice of partners for these concertos piqued my interest. I have greatly admired the work of Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO) in the music of Erkki Melartin and, even more so, in that of Sibelius but I can’t recall encountering them previously in music from the Classical era. The recordings, like all the others I’ve heard from this team, took place in the orchestra’s home hall, the Helsinki Music Centre.
At the start of the First Concerto we immediately hear the sort of orchestral sound that will be in evidence throughout this cycle. The strings, with the violins divided left and right, are sparing with the vibrato, the timpanist uses hard sticks and overall, the sound is lean and clear. The string band is appropriately scaled: the booklet lists nine each of first and second violins, seven violas, six cellos and four double basses, though it may well be that Hannu Lintu doesn’t use all these players in the early concertos; the string section sounds to be larger in the last two concertos.
The lean—but definitely not thin—orchestral sound complements nicely the sprightly tempo that Lintu adopts for the first movement of the First Concerto; he achieves excellent clarity as, indeed, is the case throughout the cycle. Stephen Hough’s playing is grateful and nimble. His light-fingered articulation is a constant source of delight. Lintu’s accompaniment is very supportive and I especially appreciated the lithe woodwind contributions. The cadenza (12:39 – 13:41) is the first of the two that Beethoven wrote in 1809. The Largo starts serenely and throughout the movement Hough plays with admirable poise; his playing of Beethoven’s decorations is lovely. The orchestral accompaniment is ideally tasteful. In the closing minutes the principal clarinettist offers fine playing, culminating (9:20) in a meltingly lovely reprise of the movement’s main theme. This is a delectable performance of the movement. Both soloist and orchestra display infectious high spirits in the Rondo; the ‘C’ section is pointed with particular wit but, in truth the whole movement is delivered with joie de vivre. The cycle is off to an excellent start.
Though the Second Concerto attained its final form in 1801, Beethoven had been working at it, on and off, for some ten years. Requiring a smaller orchestra than the C major concerto—the clarinets, trumpets and timpani are absent—it sounds more obviously a work of the eighteenth century. In fact, it seems that the composer himself was not wholly impressed with it; he offered it to the publisher, Hoffmeister at a reduced rate, telling him that ‘I don’t consider it as one of my best works’. The FRSO plays the orchestral introduction in a suitably lean, muscular fashion. Hough’s playing is crisp. Despite the excellent, alert performance, if I’m honest, the thematic material seems somewhat less interesting than in Op 15, though there are some diverting key changes to savour. Beethoven composed a cadenza in 1809 but in his notes Barry Cooper remarks that stylistically this cadenza didn’t sit comfortably with the movement as a whole. Instead, Stephen Hough has devised his own (11:47 - 13:30). This seems to me to be inventive and stylish and I like the way he leads back to the orchestra without the use of the trill that was customary in Beethoven’s day. The performance of the second movement is elegant. The passage from 6:14 to the end is especially memorable. First, we hear quiet, pensive piano solos punctuated by soft interjections from the strings, and then the orchestra brings the movement to a close: all of this is done with the utmost refinement. The puckish finale is my favourite movement in the concerto. The American writer Michael Steinberg aptly describes it as ‘a captivating high-spirited, comedy’. Here it receives a witty, dynamic performance.
The Third Concerto represents a major advance on its predecessors. The concerto form is still used as a vehicle to display soloistic virtuosity but now Beethoven marries this with a greater seriousness of purpose and argument. The more serious tone is evidenced by the purposeful way in which Lintu and the FRSO deliver the orchestral introduction. Hough successfully mixes seriousness and display in this movement; his playing is very fine indeed. The cadenza (12:33 – 16:04) is Beethoven’s own and it is commandingly delivered. Hough opens the Largo as a poetic reverie and thereby sets the tone for what is to follow. His playing throughout is admirably inward while the orchestral support is very sensitive; there’s some lovely woodwind playing to relish. The Rondo finale is played with verve and good humour. The movement is ideally paced and both the soloist and the orchestra display many imaginative touches, not least by paying scrupulous regard to dynamic contrasts. A feeling of spontaneity is always in the air and nowhere more so than in the short passage where Hogh tantalisingly paves the way for the high-spirited coda (from 8:17) where, the major key finally and firmly established, Beethoven’s music fairly dances for joy.
Beethoven began the Fourth Concerto with a stroke of innovative genius: instead of an orchestral introduction we first hear the pianist playing alone and quietly, announcing the main theme. There are two schools of thought about this opening. A few pianists spread the first chord while others—the majority in my experience—play it ‘straight’. Hough opts to spread the chord. This was the first concerto that I listened to when I received this set—it’s my favourite—and I scribbled down in my notes ‘magisterial lyricism’ to describe Hough’s delivery of the first movement. Returning to the performance subsequently, I’ve seen no reason to modify that verdict. His playing throughout is wonderfully nuanced and his partnership with Lintu is highly effective: the orchestral contribution is distinguished. There are a number of tempo modifications made for expressive purposes and all of them seem thoughtfully judged. Hough plays Beethoven’s first and longest cadenza (14:37 - 18:30); it’s a very thorough examination of the movement’s thematic material. This is a deeply satisfying traversal of the first movement. In the short slow movement, the FRSO strings are, at first, strong and peremptory. However, the Olympian grace of Stephen Hough’s playing would calm anyone—his touch is limpid—and eventually the pianist prevails, the movement ending in exquisite concord. There’s a great deal of spirited bonhomie to enjoy in the finale, though the more thoughtful, lyrical passages are by no means underplayed. The fast coda is a joyful experience.
And so, Hough and Lintu reach the leonine ‘Emperor’ Concerto. The opening rhetorical flourishes are suitably heroic. The orchestral introduction is purposefully laid out and when Hough plays his pianism combines strength and delicacy in ideal fashion. As the movement unfolded, it seemed to me that Hough, supported at every turn by the orchestra, explores every facet of this huge movement with great understanding and success. As was his wont, Beethoven chose a remote key for his slow movement; in this case B major. Lintu and the FRSO open proceedings easefully with a noble, singing rendition of the introductory passage. When Hough begins to play it’s as if he were playing a dreamy nocturne and the silky orchestra act as his willing accomplices. The music rarely lifts its voice throughout the movement and I thoroughly enjoyed this rapt, cultivated performance: it sounds spontaneous but, my goodness, it could only be the result of dedicated attention to detail by all concerned. As if reluctant to break the spell, Stephen Hough treats us to a magical transition to the finale, the hushed piano chords beautifully weighted. Then, he springs into action and launches an ebullient account of the concluding Rondo. Here, for the most part, the music dances joyfully and the musicians respond in a full-hearted fashion, bringing the concerto and the cycle to an exuberant ending.
This is a deeply rewarding and distinguished set of the Beethoven piano concertos. Stephen Hough, Hannu Lintu and the excellent FRSO are perceptive and stylish interpreters of the music. These concertos are so well known that it’s something of an achievement for artists to perform all five of them without the odd moment when the listener’s eyebrow rises, if only just a fraction. I can honestly say this never happened here. I heard what I hoped to hear—indeed, time and again I heard better than I hoped to hear. It’s especially satisfying to listen to the performances of the five concertos in numerical order—though, arguably, one ought to start with the Second to experience Beethoven’s full development as a concerto composer—but listening to any of the concertos in isolation is just as valuable an experience. The only regret I have is that the set wasn’t expanded to include the Choral Fantasia but I suppose I’m just being greedy!
The performances have been captured in lovely clean and clear sound with just the right amount of hall ambience. The balance between the Bösendorfer piano and the orchestra is excellent as, indeed, is the internal orchestral balance. The booklet includes valuable notes by Beethoven expert Barry Cooper.
It's worth making two extra points about this release. Firstly, though this is a three-disc set it’s priced as for two discs. Secondly, I understand that Stephen Hough is donating his royalties to the organisation Help Musicians to benefit needy musicians in this time when the Covid-19 restrictions are placing the careers and financial positions of so many musicians in jeopardy. That’s a very generous gesture by a very humane artist.
We’re less than half-way through 2020 but I suspect that this set will be high on my list when the MusicWeb International reviewers are asked to nominate Recordings of the Year.