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It seems impossible for Stephen Hough to play a dull bar, and anything he touches has unique qualities of insight and controlled emotion. One looks forward to any performance with a sense of keen anticipation, so I was delighted to receive this set in my monthly allocation. It demands attention, and it belongs among my most treasured cycles. The question, however, is whether it is a first choice.
So many great pianists and conductors have given us so many insights, and these works have so many riches, that perhaps it is a foolish quest to seek a ‘best’ – doing so can lead to think that a given way is the only possible approach, and to miss the treasures others can give us. I have some reservations about the set, and, though these are small to me, might be more worrying for others.
My main concern was with the orchestral playing. The Finnish Orchestra is very good, and Hannu Lintu – fine conductor as he is – strikes me as not always the most comfortable Beethoven accompanist, compared with, for example, Haitink, Belohlávek, Menges, Leitner or Klemperer. Some phrasing is a little awkward when picking up from the pianist. Compare, for example, the orchestral accompaniment of Herbert Menges and the Philharmonia in Beethoven recordings with Solomon, and the unity of mind with the soloist is extraordinary.
The highlight of the set, at least for me, is the C minor Concerto; and the new performance goes straight to the top of my list (no reservations about the orchestra here). Changes of mood and character are superbly caught, and repeated listening has not dulled my attention or enthusiasm. The set is worth its price for this performance alone, very well captured by the engineers.
Some people love the Fourth Concerto, while it is the one I enjoy least, and I left it until last. Oddly, it was the first I encountered, many years ago, on an old recording by Artur Rubinstein, and the first I heard performed live, by Daniel Barenboim with Boult standing in for Klemperer, in 1968. When I listened to Hough, I was delighted to find my fears put to one side. There was no romantic lingering in the surprise opening bars, and the remainder of the first movement was akin to discovering the work for the first time. An interesting detail is that Hough arpeggiates the first chord. According to Czerny, Beethoven did the same, and the change in character, while subtle, gives new insight. Best of all was the Andante con moto second movement. In too many performances the piano-taming -the -ruffian orchestra is taken prosaically, as if Beethoven had just had the single idea in his head. Not so here: Hough reveals subtleties, obiter dicta, missed by too many others.
Performances of the other three concertos are powerful. Those who prefer period performances might find the First and Second a touch disappointing in their approach: Hough here, as elsewhere, can be forthright, fully conscious that our ears and sensibilities are thoroughly 21st Century - and that, we cannot alter. These interpretations look forward rather than back, I think, and are to be appreciated on those terms. Cadenzas are an issue with both concertos. Beethoven’s 1808 version of the cadenza for the First Concerto is incomplete, and Hough chooses the first – and much shorter - of two versions written for Archduke Rudolph in 1809, a version that does not outstay its welcome. In the Second Concerto, Hough provides his own version, and it is very fine, in keeping with the themes of the movement, expressive and in character, without any self-indulgence.
In general, Hough – characteristically – eschews anything which is simply showy. But there are important matters of detail. In the ‘Emperor’ there is an arresting detail straight away. The piano plays the first chord with the orchestra, following the Bärenreiter edition, as edited by Jonathan del Mar (2015). There is an indication in the manuscript, just the number 5 above the score, that Beethoven intended the effect. (Not my scholarship here – see the interview with Stephen Hough in the May 2020 edition of Gramophone). The performance of the whole piece is robust and a strong competitor with other versions.
I suspect I shall return to this recording very often, but most often for the Third and Fourth Concertos. Whether it will replace my first love, Barenboim/Klemperer, it will be interesting to see. But the performance of the Third is a triumph, the Fourth scarcely less so, and Hough’s invention and insight are gripping.