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What a pleasure to encounter a great pianist at the top of his form, and with a conductor and orchestra so perfectly attuned to his wavelength. Stephen Hough makes the most companionable guide to this cycle, his instinctive good taste saving him from histrionics, his equally instinctive intuition allowing him to unlock moments of unexpected beauty. Sometimes these are just fleeting hints, as at the beginning of the development of the first movement of the Fourth, where he gently leads Hannu Lintu and the Finnish RSO into a change of tone and tempo; or the moment of pure stillness which Hough conjures up mid- bar, near the close of the Third’s Largo.

These concertos depend on the pianist’s mastery of passagework, and in this respect too these recordings are outstanding: Hough is exceptionally clean and expressive, and he extracts all the drama inherent in the scales, whether it’s a diatonic one rising through four octaves, or a descending chromatic one. These pellucid works demand the technique which conceals technique.

Beethoven’s own cadenza for the Allegro of the Second Concerto was written much later and doesn’t suit the work; Hough plays his own cadenza, a nifty sequence of harmonic shifts. His dramatization of the ‘Heaven v Hell’ movement of the Fourth works beautifully, the piano sounding sweetly submissive until an explosion of aggressive trills. But what these recordings reflect above all are these works’ sheer exhilarated heroism.

MICHAEL CHURCH Read the full review on Agora Classica

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