No matter how many times one has encountered the Beethoven piano concertos in the concert hall, a chance to hear all of them in the course of two consecutive evenings is of course irresistible. And having them played by a fabulous artist like Stephen Hough makes the journey even more thrilling affair.
For his dazzling endeavour, Hough has chosen Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra as his fellow travelers, based on experiences gained with a performance of the Concerto No. 1 some years back.
In conjunction with these concert performances, the concerto cycle is also recorded for a subsequent release on CD by Hyperion Records next year, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
Employing modern instruments, with period trumpets and timpani added, Hough and Lintu had chosen to perform the concerti in Jonathan Del Mar’s critical edition, a marvellous case in point of editorial craftmanship at the highest lever.
The first evening opened with the Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19 (1787-89/1795), chronologically the earliest (surviving) Beethoven concerto, though the second one to be published. Both the autograph full score and the autograph solo part, written out for the concerto’s publication in 1801, survive.
However, the autograph orchestral score wasn’t available when the second edition of the score was prepared and printed, thus giving rise to several mistakes in the orchestral parts that have since come down to all subsequent editions until Del Mar went back to original sources for his new critical edition.
The Concerto in B flat Major is a formidable piece in transition. While being rooted in the Mozartian concerto tradition, those characteristically Beethovenian traits are already manifest themselves in the rhythms and dynamics, as well as in melodic contours.
Scored for flute, oboes, bassoons, horns and strings, the concerto opens with an orchestral introduction paving the way for the solo piano to enter. With the ensuing dialogue, one was immediately struck by the level on communication between the soloist and the orchestra, manifesting itself throughout the movement.
Instead of Beethoven’s cadenza, written in 1809, Hough had chosen to play his own, most fabulous cadenza, an inspiring choice for both live performance and recording.
The Adagio opened with admirable warmth and clarity provided by Lintu and the orchestra. Again, the continuity of musical thought between the orchestra and the soloist was admirable, resulting in an enchantingly nuanced dialogue.
The finale rondo was pure musical joy, with marvellous rhythmic drive and wit, delivered in perfect unison by Hough and Lintu. A joyous affair, the Concerto in B flat set the Beethoven journey in formidably in motion.
Though separated by just a few years, there is a quantum leap in expression from the Concerto in B flat to the Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-3). Joined by clarinets, trumpets and timpani, the orchestral palette is augmented in colour and dynamics, resulting in sharper contrasts and more pronounced accents.
The same is true with the solo part, which employs hitherto unparalleled expression, engaged in dialogue within itself as well as with the orchestra.
In the case of the C minor concerto, autograph solo part is missing. As there are mere sketches of the piano part in the surviving orchestral score, the critical edition of the solo part relies on the materials for the first published edition form 1804, featuring Beethoven’s corrections.
The opening Allegro con brio is a wonderful drama of its own right, ravishingly realized by Hough and the orchestra. Admirably balanced by Lintu, the orchestra shone in exquisite colours, providing marvellous soundscape for Hough’s ever imaginative rendition of the solo part.
In the second movement, Largo, Hough delivered the opening with unique beauty and imagination, with Lintu and the orchestra providing their answer, once again, in perfect musical and emotional accordance. One of the many highlights of the evening, hearing the Largo in the profound silence of the sold-out hall was a ravishing experience.
With an equally worthy take on the finale Allegro, the Concerto in C minor was brought to its wonderful conclusion.
On the second half of the evening, the Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (1805-06) was heard. With the Fourth Concerto, autograph sources are sadly lost to us. Luckily, a copyist’s score with Beethoven’s corrections survive alongside the first published edition (1808), containing Beethoven’s revisions.
One of the finest creations by Beethoven, the Fourth Concerto opens with the solo piano, introducing the first subject, which is then developed in a most imaginative dialogue with the soloist and the orchestra. Again, one was struck by the multitude of virtues of the performance, one of the most imaginative in living memory.
The slow movement, Andante con moto, provides a condensed, yet emotionally fully charged contrast in mood and texture, with agitated strings and aching solo line engaged in intense dialogue. Hough and Lintu were masters of drama, providing the audience with a sense of tragedy par excellence.
In the finale rondo, Hough and the orchestra, with Lintu, unleashed a splendidly Beethovenian sonic flow, in all its jest, wit and upbeat energy. Joined by trumpets and timpani, the orchestra resounded with marvellous transparency and rhythmic clarity under Lintu, ever in accordance with Hough’s outstanding take of the solo part, resulting in a wonderful conclusion for the evening.
An excellent adventure, the evening was a riveting celebration of Beethoven’s ever transforming genius, at the highest musical level. A case in point of excellent teamwork between soloist, conductor and orchestra. On disc, this will be one of the most eagerly-awaited new releases of the Beethoven year 2020.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19 (1787-89/1795)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 3 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37 (1800-03)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58 (1805-06)
Music Centre, Helsinki
22 May 2019, 7 pm
© Jari kallio