BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5. Yevgeny Sudbin, piano; Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, conductor. BIS hybrid Super Audio CD.
This exceptionally polished CD, released a bit too late for holiday giving, inaugurates the Minnesota Orchestra's latest recording project, a three-disc set of the five Beethoven piano concertos and, for good measure, Mozart's proto-Beethovenian C-minor Concerto (K.491), with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin and conductor Osmo Vänskä. The new undertaking, on the BIS label, capitalizes on the enthusiastic reception accorded the Swedish firm's complete recording of the Beethoven symphonies by the orchestra and its exacting music director.
The disc enters a crowded field. Among the pianists who have lately given us their thoughts on this music are Boris Berezovsky, Yefim Bronfman, Till Fellner, Richard Goode and Paul Lewis. Classic sets by the likes of Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff and Artur Schnabel also remain in circulation. Why so many? It's partly that the concertos have a conversational quality that's easy for both performers and listeners to enter into.
So what's distinctive about the Sudbin-Vänskä collaboration? Pianist and conductor seem of one mind throughout. They share a devotion to lucidity; every note registers with bell-like clarity. Again and again, orchestral textures that sound muddy in other recordings are rendered transparent; bass lines, in particular, are vividly etched.
Sharing Vänskä's attention to dynamics, Sudbin rivals him in the pianissimo department: In the Fourth Concerto, incontestably the cycle's crown jewel, the piano's final note in the wondrous Andante -- program music of the highest order -- is daringly quiet. Occasionally the Russian-born pianist's playing seems a bit too manicured for this music. But he turns almost feral in the composer's cadenzas -- islands of virtuosity in a piece that otherwise eschews display. In the "Emperor" Concerto (No. 5), one is made keenly aware of the work's 18th-century underpinnings; romantic sprawl is held in check.
Listeners who hope that a recording will resemble an idealized concert performance may find this disc a little on the deliberate side. At moments I wanted something that felt freer, more extemporaneous -- or simply raw. But there is real poetry here, and an abundant vitality that whets the appetite.