Conventional live performances marking Beethoven’s 250th birthday may be curtailed, but recordings already in the bag still pop up to remind us of the composer’s indomitable spirit. Stephen Hough and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra went before the microphones with the five piano concertos last June, two weeks after public concerts in Helsinki. The result? Wonderful, almost miraculous.
Forget Hough’s brilliant fingers for the moment. The first joy to hit is the orchestra’s trim, warm, blended sound, the clear result of close grooming from its painstaking conductor, Hannu Lintu. You rarely find playing of such individual character from any broadcasting ensemble. Forces are relatively modest, with pairs of brass and woodwinds resting on a lightly comfortable bed of strings. It’s an orchestra that accommodates a soloist as a snug glove fits a hand, and even when Beethoven pits them against each other, loud versus soft, rough versus tender, you still feel the pair in dialogue, thinking each other’s thoughts.
As for Hough, there isn’t a colour, weight of attack or nuance of phrasing or rhythm that passes him by. Yet every effect, from the decorative flights in the early concertos to the imperial fortissimos of No 5, arrives and departs with natural ease. The most thrilling and moving performance? I’d nominate the kaleidoscopic No 3, blessed here with a particularly fiery Beethoven cadenza and a central largo so tenderly, thoughtfully stroked and probed that my tear ducts opened. No 4 is the runner-up: a total delight from the piano’s opening musings to the orchestra’s cute hesitation before the final chord. There are no losers, either, among the other three.