Beethoven: The Complete Piano Concertos (CD review)

Stewart Goodyear, piano; Andrew Constantine, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Orchid Classics ORC100127.

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.

Stewart Goodyear
Piano Concerto No. 3 is a kind of transitional concerto, not quite in the league of Nos. 4 and 5 but clearly on a road away from Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven premiered it in 1803 along with his Second Symphony, with himself again as the concerto's soloist. Here, we get into the more dramatic, more Romantic Beethoven that we all know and love. The piano enters after a rather long-winded introduction, so it needs to be strong and energetic. Goodyear accomplishes this, if in a fairly straightforward way. The thing about Goodyear is that his playing is never fussy; everything is there for a purpose, with no frills. This works especially well in the slow, introspective Largo, where Goodyear equals anyone in his nuance and subtlety.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa