New Classical Tracks

Stephen Hough brings Beethoven's piano concertos into the 21st century

Stephen Hough's latest release includes all five Beethoven piano concertos.Sim Canetty-Clarke

New Classical Tracks: Stephen Hough (extended)


December 02, 2020
New Classical Tracks: Stephen Hough
by MPR

Stephen Hough/Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu — Beethoven: The Piano Concertos (Hyperion)

This week on New Classical Tracks, in celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birthday, we revisit Stephen Hough's new recording of his piano concertos.

"I have played these pieces my whole professional life and I've taught them and I've heard other people playing them. So, it was really time, in a sense, to do them myself. I felt I was I was ready in the sense that I had a very clear conception about what I wanted to do with them. You know, I think that these are pieces that you never get tired of hearing or working with."

Pianist Stephen Hough is talking about Beethoven's piano concertos. All five appear on a new 3-CD set featuring Stephen with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.

They recorded all of these concertos live in concert, but then they went back in the studio to record all five concertos in just five days.

"So we went back and then I was trying the piano and there'd been a Bosendorfer there that I'd really liked very much, but hadn't worked for the concert because it wasn't quite brilliant enough in the big concert hall. But of course, in a studio situation, we didn't have to worry about the brilliance. And I just love this piano. It just it felt to be so human, so warm. So a week that was meant to be quite easy, going with a few patches here and there, suddenly we had to record all five concertos in five days from scratch."

You have played these concertos with many different orchestras over your career. I'm wondering how you decided to do this with the Finnish Radio SO and Hannu Lintu?

"To me, it was that it was the best combination of how to get something that's not self consciously trying to be historically correct, but yet naturally absorbs an intelligent assessment of the playing styles of that time and make it something fresh for the 21st century."

So how did you make it fresh for the 21st century?

"Well, I think by going back to the score to start with, we want to see what Beethoven wrote and why he wrote it. But we also want to take on board good tradition and take away bad tradition. I could tell when I did that first concerto with Hannu and the Finnish orchestra two years before this recording, that they were on the same hymn sheet, if you like. I knew that we were coming at this from the same angle. And that's what thrilled me. And I thought, gosh, wouldn't it be great to to record the whole cycle with them?"

This ended up in the end being a produced recording in a studio and you were on a tight schedule. I'm wondering if there was a memorable experience you can share with us that only you would know because you were in the studio?

"Oh, how interesting. I would say that the fourth concerto, it took us a while to have a meeting of minds about the first movement. I think Hanu wanted the tempo to be faster than I did.

The orchestra had set forward this certain kind of argument. And then the pianist comes in and says, yes, but what about this? And so, in a way, the way I was working with Hannu, I think it ended up actually getting a sense of that. And I loved that about how we came to this. And I think we got into the spirit very much of that movement, which is all about — not indecision as such — but the part of the fact that any musical experience is open to infinite numbers of possibilities."

What is it about Beethoven's 5 concertos that set them apart from other piano concertos?

"By the Emperor Concerto, you have a template which is going to be used by every composer since to this very day, which is the spotlight on this great big piano in the center of the stage and also the sense that there is not always agreement between pianist and orchestra. And indeed, in the Emperor Concerto, you sense that the height of the the center of this first movement, an angry exchange, you know, when they are almost shouting at each other. That's something that Mozart had never dreamt of."

Stephen Hough, on recording the Beethoven Piano Concertos for the first time.

100% of the royalties from the sales of this album go to the UK charity Help Musicians, an organization helping musicians affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Stephen Hough/Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu — Beethoven: The Piano Concertos (Amazon)