United Kingdom Stravinsky & Beethoven: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano & conductor), Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.11.2013 (SRT)
Stravinsky: Dumbarton Oaks; Septet
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3
To great acclaim, Leif Ove Andsnes began his traversal of the Beethoven concertos (somewhat grandiosely entitled the Beethoven Journey) with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra last year. The second instalment came to Edinburgh for its only visit north of the border, and it was a real treat.
The sound made by the small (and fairly young) group of players is a marvel of ensemble. The string sound is noticeably mellow with an unusually prominent middle, and the winds have the edge of a skirl to them. The whole is characterised by a lovely blend, though; horn sound for Dumbarton Oaks, for example, was distinctive yet still emerged organically. Most impressive is the way they listen to each other – and, by extension, respond to one another – rendering a conductor absolutely unnecessary.
The merits of their approach were showcased most convincingly in the Stravinsky pieces. Dumbarton Oaks was vigorous and extrovert in its outer movements but more subtle, even seductive in its slow movement. The wiry melodies of the Septet, on the other hand, reinforced the sheer clarity of each musical line, coming together with transparency and virtuosity. The interplay is so clear you can almost touch it, and they even managed to make the slow movement somewhat alluring, despite the sometimes jarring harmonies.
The two Beethoven concertos were marvellous, too. The tuttis of both had a real sense of energy, with a large sound that belied the size of the ensemble. That of the Third, especially, carried a palpable sense of tension, the feeling that something big was about to happen. Andsnes is a galvanising presence at the keyboard. He encourages the players to raise their game to a special level of class, and he joins them with playing of such poetry and grace that it sounds extremely special. Take, for example, the moment in the first movement of No. 2, when the soloist introduces the more lyrical second subject: under Andsnes’ fingers this moment is lovingly caressed into existence, and I loved the similar way he eased the slow movement of No. 3 into being. Even the cadenzas contain beauty and musicality, and are never for a moment showy for their own sake. In the same way, both the finales begin with the piano stealing rather than bursting onto the scene, and both were characterised by grace and flair that was well above the ordinary. This evening confirmed Andsnes as a pianist of the highest order, and it made it clear to me why he had chosen this orchestra as the one to accompany him on his Beethoven journey.