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SACD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Concerto for Piano #4 in G Major, Op. 58
  • Concerto for Piano #5 in E Flat Major "Emperor", Op. 73
Yevgeny Sudbin, piano
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS SACD-1758 Hybrid Multichannel SACD
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In my review of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano's recently repackaged collaborations (Berlin 0300597BC), I found myself only sporadically impressed by the partnership between husband and wife in this music. Certainly there were many moments of great music-making and the DSO Berlin forces also were more than serviceable. However, truly outstanding recordings of these works more effectively balance the power and drama of these concertos with their more beautiful qualities. On this gorgeously produced album almost everything goes right.

Before turning to the talents of Yevgeny Sudbin, we must again marvel at just how great a Beethoven conductor Osmo Vänskä is. His Minnesota Symphony cycle of the Beethoven nine was praised by seemingly everyone, effortlessly capturing the old and new. The Minnesota forces sound wonderful on this 2010 disc, with glowing woodwinds and crisp string articulation. There is no real "school" here, in the sense that the project doesn't come off as an attempt to be "historically informed" any more than it tries to be "historical". Indeed, one of my main concerns with Nagano's Berlin Classics set was that it tried to hard to be new and different, and ended up being less than special despite genuine attention to detail. Here, there is a fuller and more robust orchestral picture, but it's not heavy or overly rich. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is ideal, as is the sound.

And Sudbin brings new life to works that each of us at Classical Net have dozens of copies of already. A recording of these concertos has to be distinctive enough to want to hear without being disrespectful to the scores. It's not an easy task, especially because each writer and listener alike has clear ideas on how this music is "supposed" to go. If I had to choose a pianist for this repertoire though, I could rest easy choosing Sudbin. The playing is glorious, with a lovingly sung account of the Fourth that features both poetry and strength. The contrast between piano and orchestra in the sharply-etched slow movement has rarely been so convincing and moving all at once. While others use blatant changes in dynamics and tempo to make a point here, conductor Vänskä has no intention of personalizing the music just to make a point. Rather, his low strings (which shone radiantly in the Symphonies as well) are unforced and natural, while Sudbin's phrasing is to die for. The Finale is a joyful and carefully sculpted affair, again featuring some spectacular emphasis in the lower registers that bring the score to life. Sudbin plays like water flowing in a stream, and the Minnesota players are similarly inspired.

After that great performance, one might worry that the coupled "Emperor" might be a letdown. No worries here, for there is both a feeling of grandeur and inevitability that suits the work well. This isn't Claudio Arrau, in the sense that the epic profundity of the work is largely a think of the past. Rather, no matter how "big" Sudbin makes this music, it's never at the expense of clarity and forward momentum. There is a refreshing straightforwardness throughout the entire disc. The concluding Rondo manages to be exciting and engaging. For my money, this is one of the hardest movements in music to pull off, in part because the technical demands are so high within the context of strict Classical form. There's only so much a pianist can do, and it requires a combination of deadly accuracy and a clear understanding of moving music forward and giving it shape. Thank God that Sudbin is among the latter, and so is Osmo Vänskä. The result is a Beethoven disc to live with.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman