Stylish Beethoven from Lief Ove Andsnes

 United KingdomUnited KingdomStravinsky, Beethoven, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Lief Ove Andsnes (piano/director), Cadogan Hall, London, 21.11.2013 (RB)

Stravinsky – Concerto in E Flat ‘Dumbarton Oaks’  
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Op 19
Stravinsky – Septet
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Op 58

Lief Ove Andsnes recently embarked on a project to record all five Beethoven piano concertos for Sony Classical.  This is the first time the Norwegian pianist has committed his Beethoven interpretations to disc and he is joined in this project by the formidable Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he is directing from the keyboard.  Andsnes is an excellent Classical player and has made celebrated recordings of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert.  His initial recording of the First and Third Beethoven concertos won considerable critical acclaim and this concert was a curtain raiser for the recording of the Second and Fourth concertos which will be released early next year.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s neo-Classical Dumbarton Oaks concerto, which was commissioned by the American diplomat, Robert Wood Bliss and his wife, Mildred Barnes.  Dumbarton Oaks estate is in the Georgetown district of Washington DC and it was the Bliss family home:  some commentators have seen the concerto as the composer’s response to the elegance and cool poise of the estate although many also see it as modern day version of a Brandenburg concerto.  Andsnes did not join the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for this first piece but they proceeded to show how a well-drilled chamber ensemble can give a performance of the highest standards without the aid of a conductor.  In the opening Tempo Giusto the orchestra gave us clear and bright sonorities while communicating the vitality and zest of the writing.  Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto seemed to weave a ghostly presence throughout the movement.  The Allegretto second movement was witty and precise and I was particularly impressed with some of the elegantly tapered lines from the flautist.  In the finale the orchestra seemed to find just the right balance between neo-Classical restraint and Stravinsky’s more trenchant writing.

Andsnes has a very modest and unassuming stage presence – when he finally came on to the concert platform to play the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto it was clear that he wanted the audience to see him as part of a wider ensemble rather than a flashy soloist.  In the opening of the first movement, the orchestra moved seamlessly from a cultured Classical eloquence to the kindling passion of romanticism.  Andsnes’ playing of the passagework was elegant and nimble and he demonstrated a pleasing sense of Classical style.  He had clearly developed an excellent rapport with the orchestra and they were completely in sync throughout all the shifts in tempo, while the exchanges with the woodwind had a chamber music feel.  He played Beethoven’s own cadenza, which he dispatched with authority and technical assurance.  Andsnes showed us a silky touch in the Adagio and there was a real sense of intimacy in some of the dialogue with the woodwind.  The dying of the piano part in the final pages of the movement was magical.  The finale was boisterous and high spirited with Andsnes and the orchestra really bringing out the Haydnesque wit in some of the exchanges.

The second half opened with Stravinsky’s Septet, which was again written for Robert Bliss and his wife and uses the instrumental combination of violin, viola cello, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano.  This work was composed in 1953 and it shows the influence of Schoenberg’s serial techniques and uses baroque musical forms.  The textures were admirably clear in the first movement while the contrasting thematic material was nicely characterised.  The passacaglia had a brooding, meditative quality while the final gigue was brisk and biting.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which is one of the great pinnacles of the piano repertoire.  The opening chords were beautifully weighted by Andsnes and had a warm and tender feel.  His handling of the passagework throughout the first movement was exemplary and he showed us once again a real appreciation of period style and architecture.  However, it was the quality of the dialogue with the orchestra which seemed to lift this performance into a different league.  Andsnes again played Beethoven’s own cadenza:  his playing was measured and restrained and he seemed to be much more focused on creating musical poetry than technical display.  The slow movement was absolutely spellbinding with Andsnes’ whispered pianissimi creating a soothing, bewitching effect and seeming almost to caress his growling orchestral partners into submission – for me this was the best part of the entire concert.  The finale was robust and vibrant and I was struck both the muscularity of the playing and with the way in which Andsnes brought out some of the humour and zaniness of the piano writing.

I gather recordings of all five piano concertos will be available by 2015 – if this concert is anything to go by Andsnes and his orchestral partners will rival the very best.

Robert Beattie

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