If you have been a regular reader of Classical Candor, you may have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: When approaching the purchase of a complete cycle of concertos, symphonies, sonatas, what-have-you, it's always best to find individual recordings by individual artists rather than try to find a single set that serves all needs. This certainly applies to Beethoven's five piano concertos, where even if a person did want a single set of all five pieces, that person would face the dilemma that practically every great pianist of the stereo age has already done one. These artists include Andsnes, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Ax, Barenboim, Brendel, De Larrocha, Fleisher, Giles, Guida, Katchen, Kempff, Kissin, Kovacevich, Perahia, Pollini, Rubinstein, Schiff, Serkin, Tan, Uchida, Weissenberg, Zacharias, Zimerman, and others I can't even remember. It's heady competition.
Nevertheless, nothing will stop musicians young and old from attempting to do everything; it's sort of a rite of passage or something. Nor does it mean there will be anything wrong with any of these sets, and that applies to this new set from Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, accompanied by Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Goodyear is a fine musician, and the set does display some impressive things.
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 are Beethoven light, so to speak, still showing the earmarks of Mozart and Haydn in their style and execution. They sound more blithe, more carefree, than the composer's later concertos. Beethoven wrote the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, in 1795, premiered it with himself as soloist, and then revised it slightly in 1800. He published the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19 in 1795 as well, but he had been working on it since around 1787.
Anyway, Goodyear handles these early works with his usual dexterity, employed with an exceptionally gentle yet sprightly touch. You'll find more forceful presentation elsewhere, though. Goodyear can exhibit all the virtuosity of the best pianists, but he never puts it on display for its own sake. In other words, he doesn't show off, choosing instead always to place the music above himself. Moreover, under Goodyear the sweetness of the slow movements is matchless. Interestingly, Goodyear tells us in a booklet note that Beethoven's piano concertos are "pursuits of unbridled joy." I say "interestingly" because while I found his performances joyful certainly, I wouldn't exactly call it an "unbridled joy." He seems a little too reserved for that. To me, his readings sound more like a sweetly restrained joy.
Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 are not only the most mature of Beethoven's piano concertos, they are also the most popular, with No. 5 "Emperor" taking its place among the most epic and important concertos in the genre. Beethoven finished the Fourth in 1806 and premiered it in 1807 during a private concert along with his Fourth Symphony. Its first public concert came the next year in a monumental concert along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasy. It would also be Beethoven's last public appearance as a soloist. The piano enters immediately, Goodyear taking the entrance with his accustomed reticence and gradually building an intimate rapport with the orchestra until they become almost as one. The delicacy of this progressive, unhurried union is quite the best feature of the performance.
Beethoven wrote the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 between 1809-1810 and published it in 1811. The opening of the concerto should have a grand and imposing presence, which Maestro Constantine pulls off moderately well, yet when Goodyear's piano enters the pianist still seems a touch too reluctant to let loose. Nonetheless, he maintains a reasonably noble demeanor, and his virtuosity is never in question. The playing just seems a little too reserved for my taste, too plain to shake my allegiance to other performers in this work. The slow movement, though, is beautifully done, hushed, tranquil, and transcendent in the manner of a Chopin to come; and the finale is appropriately joyous.
Bottom line: Goodyear's set is a sturdy, unmannered choice, particularly if you already like Goodyear's style and playing or if you simply want to sample everything out there. Regardless, if you're looking for the best all-around set, performance and sound, I'd continue to recommend Stephen Kovacevich with Sir Colin Davis on Philips. It's almost in a world of its own.
Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the concertos at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales in September, 2018. The sound is much the same as previous recordings in Hoddinott Hall, meaning it appears in a realistic setting, with a mild ambient bloom and more of an emphasis on realistic concert hall reproduction than on absolute clarity and transparency. The piano sound is a bit wide, but the overall result is pleasurable from the classical-music listener's point of view, even if it might not be material you'd want to use to show off your brand-new stereo system to an audiophile friend.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: