Yevgeny Sudbin / Tapiola Sinfonietta / Osmo Vänskä BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos 1 & 2

Let me lay out information first of all: this is the conclusion of Yevgeny Sudbin’s cycle of the five Beethoven concertos that began, back to front, with an issue of Nos 4 and 5 together (4/11) and continued with a coupling of No 3 in C minor with the Mozart C minor Concerto (No 24), K491 (5/14). Osmo Vänskä has been the conductor throughout, with the Tapiola Sinfonietta here and previously with the Minnesota Orchestra. I note for now that the first CD was received with enthusiasm and was an Editor’s Choice; the next, in which No 3 was paired with the Mozart, fared less well.
It is impossible to hold back from admiration for Sudbin in whatever he plays, thanks to his brilliance and hallmark exuberance. He has much to say and he wants us to listen. You may feel the hyperactive style he brings to the outer movements of these concertos is just what they require. I am not so sure. The exuberance, for me, tips over to a cat-on-hot-bricks manner that too often seems a default position and wearisome. ‘Halt,’ I want to cry, ‘couldn’t you please occasionally calm down a bit?’ Need sforzato accents always be like touches of a whip and scales the length of a piece of string? Vänskä and the orchestra are willing partners. I resist too their bass-heavy sound world, built around microphone placements, which projects a nervy, fidgety view of dynamics in which a level is rarely sustained for its full term. Try the opening of the C major Concerto (No 1) – marked pianissimo until a crescendo leads into the first fortissimo at bar 16 – as an example of what I mean. To me, this is so much more exciting if the very quiet martial energy at the beginning is held taut. It’s the sort of detail a great conductor with a major orchestra and demanding soloist will agree upon and get right.
Oh dear, I’m sounding grouchy. I want the prospect of admiring Sudbin as much in Beethoven as in Scarlatti and Scriabin; but it is not there. He is sparky and generous with impulses and good ideas, but restless. The Largo of the C major Concerto, the longest slow movement in all the concertos, shows how the best of ‘early’ Beethoven is every bit as characteristic as the later, with an appreciation, in this instance, of the clarinet and solo writing for it that he never surpassed. I treated myself to Sony Classical’s box of Sviatoslav Richter’s complete live and studio recordings for RCA and Columbia; seek it out if you can for the performance he gave with Charles Munch and the Boston SO of this concerto in November 1960. Yes, from way back, I know, but incomparable.
Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny remarked that the master ‘brings out difficulties and effects on the piano that we could never have imagined’. Yevgeny Sudbin at his best is an artist capable of reminding us of that and there is plentiful evidence in these rondo finales. Don’t get me started on his cadenzas. They ignore all the material Beethoven left for Concerto No 1, which he finds wanting in various ways, playing in the first and last movements cadenzas of his own (‘based on Friedheim’). Suffer them if you can; I couldn’t possibly comment.
There’s a mistranslation in the booklet of the German note which makes a nonsense of where the cadenza comes in the first movement of the B flat Concerto (No 2). (Stephen Plaistow / Gramophone)

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