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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15 (1795, rev. 1800) [37:37]
Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19 (1787-98) [28:03]
Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37 (1800-03) [35:56]
Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op.68 (1804-07) [32:54]
Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ (1809) [38:14]
Stewart Goodyear (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Andrew Constantine
rec. 2018 Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales, UK
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100127 [3 CDs: 2:52:44]

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear (b. 1978, Toronto) has had a close association with the music of Beethoven for many years, and it is thus not surprising to see this complete set of the concertos by him. He has already recorded all thirty-two sonatas but has also accomplished a rare feat with them: playing them all in a single day, and on four occasions at four major concert venues in the US and Canada. Goodyear's repertory is hardly limited to Beethoven, though, taking in a range of works by JS Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Messiaen, and various other twentieth century composers. Goodyear himself is a composer and has recently given several performances of his new work Callaloo, Caribbean Suite for piano and orchestra. He has also made a fair number of recordings for several different labels including Telarc, Steinway & Sons, Marquis and Sono Luminus. This new 3-CD set in his third recording for Orchid Classics.

Needless to say, taking on these five concertos is a daunting task with plentiful competition. Goodyear produces playing here in all five works which is refined, very tasteful, elegant and subtle. He is not a finicky or calculated kind of performer, nor is he the type to indulge in spur-of-the-moment whimsy, giving in to the momentary quirk, a drawback of so many pianists, even great ones. Yet he doesn't rein in his intuitive sense, either; rather, he allows the music to flow naturally under his fingers, letting it breathe and mostly speak for itself, free of eccentricity. Thus, after listening to him in these concertos you develop the sense that you can trust him always to play at a high level.

In the First Concerto's opening movement, Goodyear delivers a most convincing account, with dynamics, accenting and other elements of phrasing divulging both subtle nuancing and gracefulness, his tempos moderate and always workable. Yet, for all the refinement and note-perfect accuracy, Goodyear never comes across as bland or lacking in spirit anywhere in this lengthy panel. Take note, to cite just one example, of his performance of the cadenza (he wisely chooses the longer and most commonly played one): hear how he imparts drama and a sense of thrust to the notes in the opening measures, then soon builds tension with dynamics swelling, then recedes demurely to recall the lyrical alternate theme, then turns almost frenzied to heighten the drama - and on and on he goes, enlivening the music, missing no shift in its emotional trajectory.

In the second movement, Goodyear’s silken legato tone is quite a splendid fit for the mostly dreamy and serene character of the music. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this movement played any better. The Rondo finale is filled with gusto and humor, and Goodyear is alert to all its good cheer, his dynamics taking on a somewhat more muscular manner, while adopting a fleetness in his pacing quite suitable to the music. The witty alternate theme is played with subtlety - again, the dynamics so sensitive to every emotional tic here. I had thought only Murray Perahia (Sony Classical) could get this movement altogether right, but Goodyear is just as convincing. As for the BBC NSO of Wales under the baton of Andrew Constantine—how well they play, and how well he leads them. In the end, I must declare this now as my preferred version of this concerto from among more than a dozen I have.

In the Second Concerto Goodyear shows the same mixture of subtlety and vitality, the same kind of tonal eloquence and fluency, and overlooks nothing in Beethoven's broad and colorful palette of musical expression. This concerto, like the First, is also mostly light and exuberant, though with even less gravitas. Still, it's a mighty fine piece and Goodyear wisely doesn't attempt to make more of its rather youthful, frisky character. Thus, in the first movement he plays up the frivolity and high spirits with slightly brisk tempos and dynamics shaded toward the lighter side. That said, he imparts a good measure of drama and thoughtfulness to the cadenza (the shorter of the two), as well as greater weightiness, turning out a most convincing account to close out the opening panel.

In the ensuing Adagio, the most serious of the three movements, Goodyear points up its lyrical serenity, its wistful but elegant nature, and here too the orchestra plays with utter sensitivity to the gentle, reflective character of the music. The Rondo finale gets a spirited treatment from Goodyear, with a little more robustness in his dynamics, though he does not overlook the playful side of the music. As in the First Concerto, the BBC NSO of Wales delivers splendid accompaniment. To those who want a little more background information on these two concertos, refer to my January 2020 review of Boris Giltburg's performances of them here, where I delve into their history.

In the Third Concerto Beethoven took quite a large step forward in deepening his expressive language and emotional range. While he may not match the leap forward, he made with his Third Symphony in expanding the form, he nevertheless shows great maturity and profundity here. Goodyear now divulges a bit more seriousness in his approach: while he maintains a nice legato touch, elegance of expression, moderate pacing, and dynamics that are never harsh or jarring, he is more probing and adds a bit more weight to his tone at appropriate moments. Also, Goodyear often brings out harmonies, rhythms and secondary lines you don't always hear well in other performances: try, for example the passage in the first movement recapitulation from about 11:10 to 11:40, and notice how both right and left hand are heard in proper proportion but with their notes clear, spirited and scintillating. 

Overall, the first movement has the appropriate stormy quality here, though Goodyear doesn't overdo its angst. The ensuing Largo has a serene yet somber character, Goodyear highlighting the dreamy side of the music in the middle section. The Rondo finale finds the pianist generally focusing on its array of expressive colors, its shifts from a busy manner to a frolicsome one, and from a hardy character to a warmly lyrical one. Again, he misses nothing in this concerto and both Constantine and the Wales players turn in fine work to round out this excellent account.

The Fourth and Fifth concertos are the most popular of the five, and show Beethoven continuing to evolve, moving even closer to the burgeoning Romanticism of the day. The Fourth begins on the piano, playing a rhythmic motto that would become famous in the Fifth Symphony for symbolizing fate knocking at the door. But the source of the “fate” claim, Anton Schindler, Beethoven's secretary and biographer, is often doubted by musicologists in this assertion. Anyway, Goodyear plays the Fourth's opening in a rather warm, silk-toned way, and goes on to deliver a consistently engaging rendering of the exposition and development, once more allowing you to hear secondary lines that are often buried or indistinct in other performances. His tempos are moderate, never striking the ear as lacking spirit or sounding rushed. His cadenza is understated but exquisitely played. The brief but dark second movement is dramatic and very effective: Goodyear is most compelling in showing the contrast between the soloist (meditative and soothing) and the orchestra (restless and wild), a dichotomy which has drawn the comparison of Orpheus subduing the Furies. Goodyear's finale is very spirited and colorful, as fine an account as any I've heard.

The Emperor Concerto is another success here. Again, Goodyear shows the same fine sense in his phrasing, with a wide and subtly applied range of dynamics, clear but never over-crisp articulation, and judicious tempo choices throughout. Once more, he seems to apply a bit more weight at times to his dynamics—and most effectively: try the return of the opening's cadenza-like passage at 12:32 and notice its now greater sense of grandeur and triumph. Overall, Goodyear brings off the first movement as the epic piece it is, not least because Constantine and company abet him skilfully as well. The ensuing Adagio carries the requisite dreamy character, and Goodyear manages to impart an almost epiphanic climactic moment midway through with his subtle building of the rising trills beginning at 3:36 and culminating at about 4:04. The Rondo finale is brilliantly played: colorful, brimming with energy and never sounding calculated or lacking spontaneity.

The sound reproduction from Orchid Classics is well balanced and vivid throughout. Andrew Constantine impresses me as a splendid and very sympathetic partner to Goodyear, and while some might say the orchestra doesn't quite possess the last ounce of refinement in their execution, I find them quite impressive, playing consistently with spirit, accuracy and sensitivity in all works. As for the competition, of the seven complete sets I have, I would rank Goodyear's effort at or near the top, sharing accolades with Brendel/Rattle (Philips), Andsnes (Sony Classical) and Buchbinder (C Major video). In addition, compared with individual performances of the concertos by Perahia (Sony), Schnabel (various labels), Cliburn (RCA), Rubinstein (RCA) and many others, Goodyear clearly stands with or ahead of the best. His cycle is a major achievement and certainly places him among the foremost interpreters of these Beethoven masterpieces.

Robert Cummings


Footnote
I cannot help but mention a curious detail I discovered about the Emperor Concerto's first movement timings on record: out of nineteen pianists' recordings in my collection, eighteen fall into the tight range of 20:04 to 20:55, Goodyear among them at 20:12! Daniel Barenboim, in his Euroarts video cycle from 2007, is the only exception, barely breaking away at 21:09! What is it about this music which seems to dictate a pianist's choice in pacing so unyieldingly? Out of this large a sampling, you would expect such a lengthy movement to have a range more like eighteen to twenty-two minutes at least, with a half-dozen or so pianists at or near the extreme ends.



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