Album review: Essential Beethoven with Stephen Hough, Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

A year-or-so ago, back in a very different world, pianist Stephen Hough arrived in Helsinki to perform and record the five piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven for Hyperion Records with Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The recording sessions took place at the Helsinki Music Centre on 3-7 June 2019, following live performances with all five concerti heard within two consecutive evenings as the FRSO 2018-2019 season finale. 

The performances and recording sessions were based on the fabulous Jonathan Del Mar critical edition, published by Bärenreiter. Hough performed the concerti on a modern keyboard, whereas the FRSO line-up featured modern strings and winds, together with period brass and timpani.

Within the Beethoven œuvre, the piano concertos constitute a whole universe of their own. They encompass a twenty-three year creative period, full of invention, crisis, triumph and struggle. Thus, each complete recording will inevitably be judged in relation to this developmental arch, as well as on purely musical or technical grounds. 

In this respect, having a pianist of the stature of Hough dealing with these pieces, one expects (and gets) an insightful examination of Beethoven’s musical growth.   

The first disc presents us with Concerto No. 1 (1795/1800) and No. 2 (1787-89/1795), in this order. I might have preferred chronological track listing, in order to better emphasize the fascinating development between these two concerti. However, this matter is quite easily solved with reshuffling. 

As for the performances, both concertos are treated with vigorously uplifting artistry and musicianship. The Concerto in C is beautifully built, with its aptly foaming opening movement contrasted by the intense intimacy of the Largo. Complemented by a flowing Rondo finale, the performance is a joyous one. 

From the start, one is delighted by the splendid communication and reactivity between Hough, Lintu and the FRSO musicians. Well-tuned to each others’ frequencies, they invite the listener to join the most illuminative examination of the young Beethoven creative joy. 

This rousing journey continues, and intensifies, with the Concerto in B flat. Written in his mid-twenties, Beethoven’s first proper venture into the concertante realm is an absolute charmer. In retrospect, it is always a thrill to discover the kernels of the mature Beethoven within these pages. 

Still, the Concerto in B flat is no mere experiment of juvenilia, but a full-blown feast for keyboard and orchestra, clad in playfulness. The shared vision of Hough and Lintu embraces the concerto’s youthful imagination and wit, to a wondrous effect. The members of the FRSO are excellent partners in crime, igniting the orchestral part with creative spark throughout.  

In line with the overall concept, Hough abandons Beethoven’s own, much later cadenza, in favor of his own, admirably in tune with the mood of the Concerto. 

Stephen Hough portrait by © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Omnipresent in the complete cycle, Hough’s sensitivity to Beethoven’s stylistic growth is exemplary. He presets the listener with five different takes on the composer, each fascinatingly original, yet always interconnected. 

The most precious gem on the album is the second disc, beginning with the Concerto in C minor (1800-01), premiered by Beethoven at Theater an der Wien alongside Symphony No. 2 in D (1801-03) and the oratorio Christus am Ölberge (1803/1804/1811).

The introduction of the Concerto in C minor showcases the spirited dedication and formidable expression of Lintu’s view on Beethoven, admirable realized by the FRSO. The seamless unity of vision is apparent, as the soloist snatches the music from the orchestra to pursue its initial ideas further. 

A wondrous dialogue ensues, one with an ideal mix of charged energy and nuanced reading. The music unfolds with admirable naturalness and textural clarity. The recording highlights the horns and bassoons with finesse, along a clear-cut presentation of Hough’s masterful control of the solo line, providing an invigorating aural experience. The opening movement is one of the absolute high-points of the cycle. 

The second and third movement are equally well served, both in terms of performance and sound engineering. As a whole, this is one of the finest recordings of the C minor concerto in a while. 

Is similar manner, the Concerto No. 4 in G (1805-06) is given a dazzling performance. First performed as a part of Beethoven’s legendary 1808 Academy Concert, with the composer as soloist and conductor, the concerto is a revolutionary piece, treading a whole new territory with wonderful imagination. 

The outer movements are dealt with ravishing musicality, yielding to a tremendously engaging listening experience. With Hough, the solo lines soar with astounding character and organic dramaturgy, marvellously supported by Lintu and the FRSO. The joy of music-making is ever tangible. 

Yet, it is the intensity of the central movement, that holds the firmest grasp on the enthralled listener. As a stroke of genius, Beethoven provides both soloist and the orchestra with different musical material. The achingly sublime lyricism of the keyboard is contrasted with ardent orchestral chords. 

Little by little, the soloists perseverance takes hold, and the steadfastness of the orchestra is soothed by the piano’s merciless beauty. With the ensemble thus unarmed, the movement is brought to its magical conclusion. 

The interplay between the soloist, the orchestra and the conductor is ever at the highest level, resulting in a veritable drama, worthy of an opera in three acts. 

On a personal level, it must be admitted that the Concerto No. 5 in E flat (1809-10) has always managed to withold its charm, somewhat, in my ears. It remains one of those deservedly well-loved pieces that just happen to inhabit a universe out of my reach. 

In terms of performance, Hough, Lintu and the orchestra are splendidly tuned to the many twists and turns of this voluptuous score. Bursting with energy, albeit ever in accord with the dramatic arch, the third disc presents us with a captivating take, assumingely one that will greatly please the admirers of this concerto. 

All things considered, the new Hyperion album is the most welcome addition to the recorded legacy of these wonderful, ever-contemporary masterpieces. The three-disc set is definitely one of thise absolutely essential releases of the Beethoven year. 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

Stephen Hough, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 1 in C for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1795/1800)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 2 in B flat for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19 (1787-89/1795)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37 (1800-01)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 4 in G for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58 (1805-06)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 in E flat for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (1809-10)

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre, 3-7 June 2019

Hyperion CDA6891/3 (2020), 3 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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