New recording of the piano concertos raises the bar (again)
In the year of celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth — and at a time when so many planned live concerts have been silenced by the pandemic — we are all the more grateful for the steady stream of recordings of everything from the masterpieces to the obscure. Needless to say, all performers are welcome at this party…but if you were to compose a list of those who must be participating, then pianist Stewart Goodyear would be near the top of that roster.
His latest argument for such high esteem has been earned by the new set of CDs on the Orchid Classics label, Beethoven’s five piano concertos. While some may quibble that the third disc, comprised “only” of the “Emperor” Concerto, is brief by timing standards, we found it a treat to have discs that simply laid out the five concertos in order, no fillers, etc. There are plenty of other sets recently out (and probably still coming later this year) with the other works for piano and orchestra. If all you care about are compelling readings that continue to reward on repeated hearings, look no further than Goodyear’s latest addition to his Beethoven canon.
This should come as no surprise, as Goodyear’s bona fides as a Beethoven interpreter have long been established — no one who plays all 32 of the master’s piano sonatas in one day (on at least four different occasions!) — comes to the repertoire casually. His 2014 recording of the sonatas was well reviewed and rewarded with a Juno nomination for Best Classical Recording that year.
One might think that having conquered (as much as such works can be) the sonatas, the concertos might not be as daunting. But as Goodyear points out in his note in the CD booklet, timing was everything. The catalyst was in conductor Andrew Constantine accepting the soloist’s invitation to collaborate on the project. The orchestra is the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and with a crack production team in place, the results could hardly have been bettered. As Goodyear writes: “They [the concertos] are also a music of joyous collaboration, as the piano soloist, conductor and orchestra are equal team members and partners. It is a community music on the greatest level, creating a chemistry that not only strives to bring joy to the masses, but also bring a personal Elysium to the collaborators.”
Bingo. One always hopes, when hearing live or recorded works as well-known as these, for a genuine sense of freshness, if not spontaneity. Too often an artist will reach for those goals with an arbitrary or radical approach to the music. No, Goodyear does it the hard and honest way: the works all emerge with an energy that belies their familiarity to performers and listeners alike. In the first two concertos, Goodyear’s realization of Beethoven’s own cadenzas were startlingly alive, almost to the point where one wondered if the composer Stewart Goodyear had added his own cadenzas. No, he uses the composer’s throughout the set, and to marvelous effect.
The other overriding impression is what Goodyear spoke about in the collaboration of performers. In the last two of the five concerti, it is easier for the pianist to adopt a “me versus them” approach; indeed, both of these works were seminal in developing that sense of soloist in opposition (at times) to the orchestra. But in No. 4, that famous oppositional conversation in the slow movement seems more than ever to be an evolutionary dialogue, while the outer movements brim with seamless teamwork.
Finally, the great No. 5, “Emperor,” seems unlikely to be bettered (lest we forget, kudos to the engineering crew and the fabulous playing from the BBC/Wales players). For your truly, one of the most special moments in great music is that tentative, “let’s try out this motif” sequence that leads from the slow movement to the finale; Goodyear and company simply nail it. The ever so patient unfolding of the magical motif, hanging just long enough in our ears, before pianist and orchestra explode into the sheer joyful boisterousness of the last movement feels new every time. One might say this concluding movement of the set is a different “ode to joy.” Bravi, one and all.