The Five Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough (piano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 3-7 June 2019 in the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Reviewed by: Alexander Hall
Reviewed: July 2020
CD No: HYPERION CDA68291/3 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 52 minutes
Not everybody managed five: Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev did, and Beethoven is also in the same august company, yet Mozart outdid them all. The talk, of course, is of Piano Concertos. In the case of some interpreters – Daniel Barenboim and, more recently, Jan Lisiecki spring to mind – a complete cycle of the Beethoven came at an early stage of their careers. Others, like Stephen Hough, who joins musical sexagenarians next year, have waited much longer before committing their thoughts to disc.
Originally, Hyperion had planned to record the canon as live performances given at two Helsinki concerts, but Hough declared himself dissatisfied with the results, seizing the time set aside for patching to re-record all five, and switching to a Bösendorfer. As recorded, this instrument produces a mellow sound, with a dark bass and, sometimes, angelic sounds in the treble line, but with little singing tone in the middle part of the keyboard.
I started this listening project with the earliest Concerto (confusingly numbered No.2, only because it was published in 1801 after the C-major work). Two things were immediately apparent. The partnership between Hough and Hannu Lintu involves an orchestra of chamber-like proportions (based on nine first violins and four double basses). In doing so, there is a match for two other fairly recent cycles, both involving the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, featuring Lisiecki and Inon Barnatan. The upper strings have a cutting edge (with more-incisive definition than for Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra), the bass line is suitably weighty and the transparency of sound allows many (but by no means all) details to register. The second observation relates to the nature of the work itself. The earliest fragment dates from 1787, roughly the same time that Mozart began working on his final Piano Concerto (K595). Interestingly, the orchestration for both works is identical (single flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns but without clarinets, trumpets or timpani). When you listen to Hough in the first movement, full of elegance and grace together with fine dynamic shadings, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another work by Mozart. It is only the unexpected key change at bar 39 (D-flat into B-flat minor and then B-flat), the first instance in a lifelong obsession with sudden and surprising shifts of this kind, which indicates a new voice on the scene.
In his booklet note, Barry Cooper argues that Beethoven’s original first-movement cadenza, written in 1809 for his pupil Archduke Rudolph, is “somewhat problematic” and “incongruous”. Hough substitutes one of his own, but for all its sweetness it offers not much more than conventional ornamentation. Yet what often makes Beethoven different is the incongruity, those moments when the classical framework is broken apart. Despite Hough’s many admirable qualities – and the exchange between him and the strings at the close of the slow movement, just before the woodwind chorus produce rays of sunshine, is exquisitely done – I found myself yearning for a good portion of impishness and more animated spirit. Barenboim (with Klemperer) is faster than Hough and much more playful in the outer movements, and you only have to listen to Michael Roll in his 1995 cycle (with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) to discover how this Concerto can sparkle from the first note to the last.
At the start of the First Piano Concerto there is something of a mismatch. Lintu and his orchestra provide grandeur, with supple strings and strong punctuation from woodwind and brass (and there is a gleaming clarion-like trumpet-call just before the cadenza, Beethoven’s shortest), timpani aiding propulsive feeling, only for the temperature to drop at the soloist’s first entry. Little disturbs the highly polished surface, the runs are consistently even, the control faultless. Ultimately, however, this first movement fails to sing. Things change for the better in the Largo, the longest slow movement in any Concerto by Beethoven, although the initial tempo is much closer to an Andante (Hough is two minutes faster than Barenboim). By this stage of the proceedings it becomes clear where Hough’s strengths lie. His poetic vein and tonal fastidiousness leave the stronger impression throughout. Here, both soloist and conductor are in perfect accord, achieving a rare chamber-like transparency, good manners appropriately observed, and strongly vibrant clarinets offering welcome counterpoint. In the Finale, it is Lintu again who gives the dance-like rhythms the greater edge.
All Beethoven’s works in C-minor (this key being as evocative for him as was G-minor for Mozart) exude a spirit of defiance, the pot of frustrated energy repeatedly threatening to boil over. I hear no anguish in Piano Concerto 3’s opening wind chords, and no venom drips from the string lines. Hough too is less keen on the dramatic potential and underplays the martial elements, pushing the argument along quite briskly in the exposition (the con brio marking fully realised), while savouring those lyrical passages where Beethoven relaxes and trilling wondrously like a chorus of blackbirds in Spring. The cadenza disappoints, Hough choosing a deliberate tempo which makes the individual notes sound like part of an academic discourse, and the magical timpani entry at the close is very distant. The slow movement is clearly intended as a contrast of repose and reflection after the tempestuousness that has come before it. I find Hough very persuasive here, the entire Largo opening up like an extended aria in its quiet intensity, the passages with muted strings especially heartfelt, and the duet between bassoon (very remote) and flute (better balanced) with rippling arpeggios on the keyboard brings an extraordinary chamber-like raptness. Not surprisingly, the sparkling frivolity of the Finale is less in evidence, with the E-flat episode and its Schubertian clarinet melody correspondingly more successful. Yet immediately after this, as the music moves into the minor mode, there should be a sense of bustling energy from the strings, rather than a feeling that the conductor is merely treading water, though Lintu does make amends with a nice timpani roll just before the coda.
In a recent Twitter poll, the G-major Fourth Piano Concerto came out on top by a wide margin. It is certainly unique: there is no other work even remotely similar. I find it astonishing too that the least heroic and demonstrative of these Concertos emerges as the most popular, for though it is by no means devoid of what are acknowledged to be Beethovenian characteristics it is predominantly gentle and lyrical in tone, with trumpets and drums absent until the Finale. As I listened to Hough, I was reminded again and again of a remarkable concert recording by Clifford Curzon (with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1977). The speeds are almost identical, the playing imbued with similar Schubertian ardour. It is like watching one of those speeded-up films of the petals of an old English rose opening gracefully, its perfume slowly filling the air. From the arpeggiated first chord through to the cadenza, Hough coaxes some magical tones from his instrument (try about eight minutes in) and delivers moments of exquisite mystery. In its blend of clarity and cumulative power, each skein in the texture richly coloured, the cadenza itself (the better-known of Beethoven’s two) is one of the highlights of the set.
Writing in 1935, E. M. Forster described the wondrous transformation in the slow movement: “The piano turns into Orpheus and the strings, waving less and less their snaky locks, sink at last into acquiescence with true love.” Lintu perfectly observes the sempre staccato marking, his strings gruff and unyielding at the start, before becoming submissive and bewitched by Hough’s otherworldly sounds: the orchestra’s Earth-Man to the soloist’s Moon-Child. There is much to like about the Finale: the solo cello is always nicely in the picture, Hough and Lintu are similarly energised, capitalising on both dappled woodland glades and dancing sunbeams in their traversal, an effervescent performance captured on the wing.
A lot of the sparkle at the end of the Fourth Concerto spills over into Hough’s account of the ‘Emperor’. I’m not sure that the soubriquet is entirely justified by this reading. True, the heroic elements, so frustratingly absent from the C-minor performance, are realised very effectively in the Finale, with a clear sense of where the music is heading, and slight agogic hesitations provide ripples of additional energy. The opening tutti and the soloist’s initial grand cadenza-like statement are suitably big-boned and Hough’s later contrapuntal runs are delivered with precision and power, but it is almost as though a decision had been taken to put away the toy cannons and muskets and now go for the real thing. It is partly a question of tempo: in this partnership the work is made to sound uncommonly youthful, and the slow movement strikes me as a little rushed and superficial (Gilels and Szell in Cleveland are ninety seconds longer, while Kovacevich and Colin Davis are longer still). In the Finale, spaciousness and majestic awe are just occasionally hinted at, but one of Hough’s trademark qualities – his poetic lyricism – is in short supply. But blame this particular reviewer: I was expecting a continuation of the inwrought nobility that crowns the G-major performance so wonderfully.