Andsnes Brings Palpable Freshness to Beethoven’s Concertos

GermanyGermany  Beethoven, Stravinsky, Beethoven: Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Leif Ove Andsnes (conductor and piano soloist), Dresden Music Festival 2012, Semper Opera House, Dresden, Germany 11.00am, 20.05.12 (MC)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15 (1795, rev. 1800/01)
Stravinsky: Apollon musagète (1927/28)
: Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1797/1800)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, photo credit Sonja Werner

The morning concert at the Semper Opera House was a stopping point on the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s three year journey entitled ‘Beethoven – the Journey’ to play and record all of Beethoven’s piano concertos. I understand that Leif Ove Andsnes is directing from the piano and the recordings will be released on Sony. This first leg of the tour saw the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Andsnes performing Beethoven’s First and Third Piano Concertos. It is planned to include a Stravinsky orchestral score in each of the concerts.

Founded in 1997 the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was conceived as a result of an initiative by Claudio Abbado and a group of players who had been in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. This independently financed orchestra tours extensively and has a truly international feel with up to sixty or so players coming from around twenty different countries. For this Dresden concert directed by Andsnes the pared down orchestra numbered around forty five players.

Andsnes has been taking every opportunity to perform Beethoven including the sonatas in his recital programmes. All the hard work and rigorous preparation is certainly paying off for Andsnes who played marvellously as if anointed with the spirit of the great German master. I admit to being a touch sceptical at first when first seeing Andsnes sitting at the Steinway piano with his back to the audience and the piano lid removed. In truth Andsnes’s stage plan lost little if anything in the way of intimacy with the audience, and the piano projection sounded fine in this marvellous hall.

The theme of this year’s Dresden Music Festival the Vienna, Budapest and Prague triangle applied suitably to this Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert, as the First Piano Concerto was premièred with Beethoven as soloist in Vienna in 1795 and was played again in Prague the following year. The C major score still displays Mozartian features. Beethoven also premiered his Third Piano Concerto written 1797-1800 in Vienna, and even at this stage in Beethoven’s life the C minor score still contains Mozartian influences. In the Beethoven piano concertos I was immediately struck by how the Mahler Chamber Orchestra sounded fuller than I had expected from that size of orchestra. Director Andsnes requested and obtained noticeably broad dynamics and the close unity of the strings was an outstanding feature throughout the concert. Andsnes is an alert and stylish musician playing the concertos with a palpable freshness, giving a distinct sense of nobility to these much loved scores. In both slow movements Andsnes appeared to be just gently stroking the keys with consummate ease, yet he produced beautiful playing sufficient to melt the stoniest of hearts. Ebullient, high spirits in the Finales provided thrilling climaxes that the large audience fully appreciated with enthusiastic applause and cheering.

Leif Ove Andsnes, photo credit Özgür Albayrak

Before the interval Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra strings played an intense yet starkly beautiful interpretation of Stravinsky’s neo-classical ballet Apollon musagète (Apollo, leader of the Muses). However, I’m not sure of what connection this score has, if any, with the Vienna, Budapest and Prague triangle. Stravinsky wrote the ballet, centred around Apollo the Greek god of music in 1927/28 as a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a contemporary music festival in Washington DC, USA. The score was premièred in 1928 Washington DC and later that year taken to Europe by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Stravinsky’s requirement for a homogeneous string sound was suitably delivered by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s polished string section in such glorious form.

For those music lovers who have yet to attend a concert by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra I would suggest scouring the programmes until you find one.

Michael Cookson