Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series reaches its 70th album with this program of three concertos by women. The ongoing success of the series suggests that audiences are ready and waiting for wider repertoire, and pianist Danny Driver and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Rebecca Miller deliver a real find here. The Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 45, of American composer Amy Beach has been performed and recorded, but it's been in search of a recording that captures the autobiographical quality of the work, well sketched out in the booklet notes by Nigel Simeone. Essentially, Beach faced creative repression from her religious mother and to a lesser extent from her husband, who allowed her to compose, but only rarely to perform. These experiences, it may be said, poured out in this towering Brahmsian, four-movement piano concerto, which sets up an unusual quality of struggle between soloists and orchestra. It's this dynamic that's so well captured by Driver and Miller (who happen to be married to each other). Sample the opening movement, which has lacked this quality in earlier performances.
The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra is one of Cage's most delicate works. The orchestra is treated as a group of soloists throughout, and for the most part operate with a small set of pitches and timbres, but is extended by a large array of percussion instruments played by four players. The piano, played by the superb contemporary piano interpreter Stephen Drury, weaves between the orchestral sonorities, rarely taking extended solos, as the piece becomes progressively more sparse until it tapers into silence at the end.
Involving, as it does, three master musicians and a fine chamber orchestra this was never likely to be be other than rewarding. It may not correspond with the ways of playing Mozart at the beginning of the twenty-first century which are fashionable at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it has virtues – such as high intelligence, sympathy, certainty of purpose, grace, alertness of interplay – which transcend questions of performance practice. Looking at the names of the pianists above, we might be surprised by the presence of Sir Georg Solti, so used are we to thinking of him as a conductor. But the young Solti appeared in public as a pianist from the age of twelve and went on to study piano in Budapest, with Dohnányi and Bartok.
Central to Hélène Grimaud's first live album for Deutsche Grammophon is the significance she finds in the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This movement is a touchstone for her, insofar as she regards it as the most sublime music, "where you find the real Mozart." She has also stated, "Even if this movement were all we had, that would be enough." Because of the emphasis Grimaud places on this poignant Adagio in F sharp minor, listeners may be tempted to cut to the chase and skip the other tracks to hear her interpretation.
Veteran Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder has turned in mid-career to live recordings, believing that the live situation makes possible a greater degree of spontaneity. In solo repertoire this has sometimes led him to follow his impulses into bold, unexpected interpretations. Here, in Beethoven's five piano concertos, there's less of an opportunity to color outside of the lines, even though Buchbinder serves as his own conductor (a tall order in Beethoven in itself). Yet his approach still works very well. He may deserve credit right off the bat for getting the sometimes recalcitrant Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to go along with what he's doing; the performances have a satisfying unity between soloist and orchestra.