Yevgeny Sudbin piano
Osmo Vänskä conductor
Yevgeny Sudbin and Osmo Vänskä are ideally matched Beethoven interpreters. Both understand the importance of detail, and of finding the inner beauty in every single phrase or counterpoint. But those are not really the priories for either of them, as both are more interested in the bigger picture, in the monumental architecture and the symphonic dimension of the both the orchestral and the piano parts.
The result is heavyweight Beethoven. The Minnesota Orchestra field a large string section and everyone, including Sudbin, seems comfortable to take the dynamics up to some quite awesome levels. Given the technical expertise of everybody involved, this is never a problem, the balance is always finely judged and the tone from the orchestra is always elegant.
But nothing is ever excessive, at least not in my opinion. Sudbin has a distinctively Russian touch, everything is definite, confident and well-defined, and that applies just as much to the pianissimos as it does to the robust tuttis. His rubato is also definite, but is always discrete. And the sheer lyricism of his playing endears every single phrase. Beethoven often fills up the textures with scales and other non-melodic devices, but Sudbin infuses such beauty even into these that they take on melodic potential. And while his playing has plenty of drama, he never labours the set pieces, for example the segue into finale of the Emperor has that sense of fast growing expectation, but both the dynamics and tempo are kept stable until the theme kicks in.
The technical side of this recording complements the style of performance, giving plenty of resonance and space for the big-boned textures to unfold. Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis makes its presence felt in the audible decay, especially to the piano sound, but the engineering has been carefully balanced to ensure this does not compromise the detail. The balance between the piano and the orchestra is also impressive. The piano is always at the front of the texture, but you never get the feeling that.
The mix feels bass-heavy, especially in the strings. Given the commitment of BIS to natural sound reproduction, this may well be the result of the size of the string section. But the timpani is surprisingly heavy too. That's not really a complaint, but it is probably a result of the fact that the team has just finished a Beethoven symphony cycle, and plans to maintain a symphonic soundscape for these concerto recordings.
Of all the concertos in the repertoire, these two are probably the best candidates for that sort of treatment, so the results make excellent musical sense. It might not be to everybody's taste though, especially those who prefer a period instrument sound, or even a chamber orchestra sound. To those people, I'd recommend the recent recording of the Fourth Concerto by Dejan Lazić and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Channel Classics CCS SA 305 11), which is as good as this in every way (including the SACD audio) but is the exact opposite in terms of interpretation issues. To everyone else, I heartily recommend this. The performers, pianist, orchestra and conductor alike, all have enviable reputations when it comes to Beethoven, reputations that this recording can only enhance.