Michael Quinn
Limelight, Australia
August 2020

Measured, meticulous, occasionally maverick and often magical, Stephen Hough’s eagerly anticipated Beethoven Piano Concertos cycle doesn’t disappoint. Marrying interrogative insight and interpretative individuality, it delivers vital, vivacious accounts that capture the grandeur and gravity, poetry and pathos, wit and finesse of these remarkable works.

Presented in chronological sequence, Beethoven’s shifting away from the two early Mozart-influenced concertos towards a language and style that is all his own is mapped out with all the sure-footed, fleet-fingered agility of a pianist whose depth of feeling for the music is matched by his ability to cast revealing new light on familiar landscapes.

There’s a sense of rightness about the choices Hough and Hannu Lintu at the helm of the dazzling Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra make. Immediately evident is a becoming spaciousness in tempi that err more often than not on the side of moderation. The creative lebensraum that results allows the fullest exploration of the supple give and take between piano and orchestra. It’s especially noticeable in the contrasts between introspection and exuberance, gracefully radiant slow movements discretely carving out space for moments of declamatory, Beethovenian profundity.

With its ringing clarity, responsive speed and brilliance, Hough’s choice of a modern Bösendorfer Vienna Concert piano pays huge dividends in spotlighting one telling detail after another. It’s an exhilarating journey from the spry crispness of the first two Mozartian concertos, where tempi are allowed freer rein with Hough’s own B Flat cadenza in the Second a typically telling intervention, through the astonishing arc from tragedy to triumph that is the Third and striking chiaroscuro contrasts of the Fourth to culminate in the monumental splendour of the Emperor.

The Third is negotiated with an inexorable poetic logic framed by equally considered orchestral playing to stake its claim as the first authentically Romantic piano concerto. The pivotal Largo is achingly lyrical, hauntingly still.

Hough has described the questing, other-worldly turbulence of the Fourth as “Beethoven’s ‘What if?’ concerto”. He responds to it with unabashed conviction in the rightness of the dominance the piano assumes, arpeggiating its opening chord to assert independence from the orchestra from the off. It’s a conceit that appositely lays the ground for a Fifth in which brio and brilliance are artfully, exquisitely balanced. Hough is nowhere more poised and precise than here, Lintu and his compatriot Finns responding with becoming fleetness and flair.

Barry Cooper’s booklet notes are icing on the cake, Hyperion’s recorded sound, in Helsinki’s Music Centre, exemplary. Expect gongs aplenty when this year’s awards come around.

Limelight, Australia