I'm so fired up about this recording I can't help but reveal the conclusion before I even begin! Listening to this disc caused exclamations of "WOW" from me many times throughout its duration. This is by far, without doubt, absolutely positively the most incredible Beethoven recording I have ever heard. For so many reasons I can't really put them all into words, but I'll try with just 4 major ones.
First, and foremost, is the conducting of Osmo Vanska. I am a huge fan of Vanska's Beethoven Symphonies cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra, also for BIS. It is overall the most rewarding symphonies cycle I have heard, notable for its freshness; sense of discovery; exuberance; exciting tempos; vigorous, accurate, crisp articulation; and superlative SACD sound quality by BIS. Vanska brings all of those same qualities to an accompanying role in these concertos - and indeed, the orchestra's contribution here is as strongly positive as is the soloist's. The Tapiola Sinfonietta is extraordinarily excellent. Their playing is vigorous and incisively articulate, and at all times lightning quick in response to every accent, dynamic and musical nuance. For just one example, listen to those stinging accents on the "wrong" beat in the second subject of the 1st Concerto's finale to hear what I mean. Played this crisply and incisively brings a whole new meaning to the piece. And combined with this very fast tempo, it sounds so very "right", making one wonder why other conductors sound so lazy.
Second, we are treated to that same superlative sound quality here as experienced from the set of symphonies. Indeed, I cannot imagine a better-sounding piano/orchestra combination, one which combines fullness, weight, warmth, propulsive energy and absolute clarity. The piano tone is perfect - capturing its full-sized grandeur along with that utterly delicious bell-like ping so characteristic of a Steinway. The acoustics and perspective are utterly natural and realistic, providing the listener with the illusion of hearing it live from within the hall.
Third is the sensational playing of pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. Here is playing of such freshness, spontaneity and sense of discovery that the listener hears every single musical phrase as a complete revelation. Technique is, of course, absolutely flawless and assured, even with the very brisk tempos adopted. His prowess is simply stunning - just listen to how cleanly and rhythmically secure he plays every passage, but with such variety of articulation and phrasing that inner details which normally go unnoticed are brought out to fascinating effect. And everything Sudbin plays is infused with musical nuance, dynamic contrast and subtle rubato. We hear expertly crafted musical expression, sounding utterly natural and completely spontaneous. And the delicacy of his playing in the 1st movement of the Second Concerto is breathtaking.
I've often noted that there is a big difference between playing a phrase to make a point, and pointing a phrase. Again and again, I hear Sudbin point a phrase and each time I listen in wonderment how other pianists seem to make this music sound so earthbound and routine. Very few pianists possess the ability and rare gift of such natural musical expression without altering the tempo or integrity of the printed score. The only other pianist of modern times who comes to mind is Xiayin Wang. Her magnificent Chandos recording of the Tchaikovsky 2nd and Khachaturian Concerto is a superb example.
Then there's Sudbin's use of his own cadenzas in the First Concerto. That in the first movement is especially inventive. Starting with the germ of Beethoven's theme, it develops into a glorious outpouring of rhapsodic creativity, sounding for all the world as if it were improvised on the spot. And while it verges into more modern territory (Liszt and Chopin come to mind; even Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff), it never sounds anything but absolutely appropriate. Played with such style, grace and respect, it simply fits.
And finally, the overall interpretations and style could not be more rewarding. I've already noted the endless amounts of enthusiastic freshness and sense of discovery from all involved. But even more than this, they infuse this music with an abundance of joyfulness and downright FUN! When has Beethoven sounded like he's enjoying himself as much as here? And when was the last time you heard musicians play with such enthusiasm and energy that it was unmistakable that they are enjoying themselves so much that it bubbles to the surface? In many places, these Beethoven concertos (as played here) reminded me of Mozart at his most mischievous.
Tempos throughout are generally swift and "period-accurate". Indeed, the finales are VERY fast! Beethoven's music has rarely danced so vivaciously. But, as always, it all sound absolutely right - never hectic or breathless, just thrillingly exhilarating.
In closing, it should be obvious that I enjoyed listening to this disc so much I can barely contain my enthusiasm. Aside from the "WOWs" it elicited from me, I immediately replayed the disc a second time, listening again from start to finish. That almost never happens! Being someone who owns far too many discs (over 8,000 - all Classical), and with numerous versions of these pieces already sitting on my shelves, it takes a very special recording to command notice - much less take pride of place in the firmament. This disc does just that. Not only is it my favorite disc of 2017 so far, it is the disc I shall return to EVERY time I want to listen to these concertos for pleasure. And I have just ordered Sudbin's previous two BIS SACDs of the remaining three Beethoven Concertos, coupled with Mozart's 24th. I can't wait to hear them. And, my mouth waters in anticipation of hearing Sudbin play Mozart! I certainly hope he and BIS have plans to record more Mozart concertos with Vanska on the podium. For they are a match made in musical heaven.
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