Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (with thanks to Alan Sillitoe): that was my plan to audition Stephen Hough’s survey for Hyperion of Beethoven’s Five Piano Concertos. I achieved my goal, but unlike a similar stratagem for Stewart Goodyear’s recent versions (see elsewhere on this site for a review) I didn’t go for Concerto-number order but instead started with the ‘Emperor’, continuing from Andrew McGregor making Hough’s set his Record of the Week on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review (May 2).
Thus I picked up the Emperor’s reins (complete, Andrew had offered the first movement) and once again appreciated Hough’s subtlety, which in no way undermines the regal aspects of the music, the first movement proceeding with rippling certainty and establishing from the off (something maintained throughout each Concerto) an airy, well-balanced sound-quality and a very personable contribution from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Hannu Lintu, all set down, following concert performances, in the Helsinki Music Centre between 3 to 7 June last year.
The gradations of volume and the interplay between pianist and players are a delight and Hough’s characterful naturalness a boon. The strides of the Emperor’s first movement are purposeful and clear-sighted, not hampered by routine; the slow movement flows while retaining its capacity for moonlit rapture; and the Finale, following a suspense-filled transition, is full of joie de vivre without being obviously fast and forceful; indeed it lollops delightfully, and timpani detail in the final furlong is ideally crisp and present.
So, what I admit to being my least-favourite Beethoven Piano Concerto gets this set off to a Gold Medal start in terms of performance – it’s the lack of false rhetoric that secures the win (Hough & Lintu’s reading is in the mould of the Perahia/Haitink version, a particular favourite of mine) – and soloist and conductor’s closeness and perceptive musicianship also illuminates the other four Concertos in unsullied, stylish and vibrant traversals.
Concerto 1 sparkles, the Largo is a blissful ten-minute song-without-words (expressive trills from the pianist and sovereign clarinet contributions) and Hough can boogie with the best of them in the Finale to encourage smile-inducing listener-responses. No.2 is bracingly delivered, weightier than some, if not without grace, teasing, and effective half-lights, while the Third has its C-minor import expansively outlined, Lintu’s trenchant introduction dramatically cut into by Hough; an absorbing unvarnished rendition ensues until C-major release is reached and light shines out of darkness. With Concerto 4 (a desert-island essential) we reach a lyrical highpoint in Beethoven’s output. Hough gently arpeggiates the very opening, piano alone, a statement of intent regarding what follows, a communicative lightly-touched primus inter pares description of the solo part to which Lintu’s muscular retorts offer befitting contrasts, which hold particular value in the slow movement, gruff strings quelled by poetic pianist. The Finale is festive.
Cadenzas: Hough opts for Beethoven’s short one (from a possible three) in the opening movement of the C-major, supplies his own for No.2 (it’s a pleasing and witty alternative), and chooses the now-regular one for No.4 (I was so-hoping for Beethoven’s alternative; thankfully Brendel and Gilels recorded it!).
All in all, this Hyperion release is classy and distinctive: three hours spent in the company of great music and musicians seems like no time at all. CDA68291/3 (3 CDs).
Postscript from Shuman PR (New York): Mr. Hough is donating 100% of the royalties from the sales of the album to the charity Help Musicians. He said: “It’s a strange time for a new recording to be released, but Beethoven more than any other composer represents for me the ultimate triumph of determination over adversity, and the indefatigable human spirit. I hope this small gesture will go in some way to support those colleagues who are facing difficulties at this time of crisis.”