United Kingdom Prom 9 – Beethoven and Stravinsky: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano, director), Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2015. (MB)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Stravinsky – Apollo
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58
With this concert, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra opened a three-concert survey of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (plus the Choral Fantasy) and works by Stravinsky. The First Piano Concerto opened in highly promising fashion, the tutti offering variegated sound and an already-clear sense of goal-orientation. Andsnes’s tempo was probably fast ‘objectively’ but sounded ‘right’. This was a smallish orchestra, but there was no smallness of ambition. The turn to the minor mode gave a transformation of character, not just of tonality. I could have done without rasping ‘natural’ trumpets and hard kettledrum sticks, although what seems to be an increasingly popular post-modernist mélange of instruments could by the same token have been worse. Upon the pianist’s entry, we heard clear kinship with the early piano sonatas. Transitional passages brought commendable flexibility; indeed, throughout, it was the liminal passages, rightly, which most intrigued, harmonies both telling and questioning. Bubbly woodwind solos were, quite simply, a joy.
In the Largo, I missed a larger body of strings; the sublimity of a Beethoven slow movement seems to demand greater cushioning. Woodwind and piano, however, sounded as gorgeous as ever. Line was securely, meaningfully maintained throughout. For better and for worse, mostly but not entirely for better, this was definitely a post-Abbado performance of Beethoven. Now if only one could somehow combine the virtues of this with the best of Daniel Barenboim… The finale truly sounded as a finale, its post-Mozartian inheritance explored to great advantage. Yes, it was fast, but it breathed. Episodes, moreover, seemed to breathe yet more life into the movement, just as they should.
Stravinsky at his ‘whitest’ followed. I cannot quite follow the logic of the particular Beethoven and Stravinsky pairings, but no matter. Led from the violin by Matthew Truscott (his ever-stylish solos truly excellent), the MCO adopted an unusual seating-and-standing arrangement: cellos seated in a semi-circle, other strings standing around them. Apollo is not my least favourite Stravinsky work; I do not actively dislike it, as I do Orpheus. Yet, the work’s manifest virtues notwithstanding, I cannot dissent from Boulez’s observation about the neo-Classical Stravinsky (at least at his most extreme) having fallen into the intellectual quicksands of others. At any rate, this was a fine performance, with, at times, more than a hint of similarly ‘white’ balletic Prokofiev. (Now there is a ‘difficult’ relationship between composers.) There was a keen sense of narrative from the Prologue onwards, the return to the initial tempo in the ‘Birth of Apollo’ bringing transformation to the opening material in the light of what had passed in the Allegro section.
The Muses joined Apollo’s violin as if truly compelled. This was not a cold performance, far from it, but Stravinsky’s polemical froideur remained, as did the ‘unreality’ of the almost bizarrely – and surely deliberately so – tonal music: Boulezian quicksand maybe, but interesting quicksand. The Muses’ variations were well characterised without excess. Polyhymnia sounded vividly balletic; Terpsichore seemed almost to ‘split the difference’ between her two sisters. Apollo’s Variation benefited from splendidly rich string sound – more of that in Beethoven too, please! – with the god’s emphatic alterity there for all to hear. It was in the Apotheosis that we heard the strongest real echoes of the (French) Baroque, although difference was nevertheless maintained. I may ultimately find the Webernised Rameau of Agon (or is it vice versa?) more to my taste, but this still made its point. Beautifully sensitive playing proved just as variegated as had been the case in Beethoven.
It was to Beethoven we now returned, with perhaps the very greatest, and certainly the most lovable, of all his piano concertos: the Fourth. Andsnes’s opening phrase seemed to offer a piano ‘without hammers’. The orchestral response was subtle, full of life. I do not think this was a larger string section – I did not count the players – but it sounded fuller of tone. There was certainly a strong sense, again unexaggerated, of the Beethovenian sublime, and the MCO’s woodwind section proved as remarkable as ever. The piano’s second entry reminded us that this was, in every sense, a concerto, not a symphony. It may have been in many respects an intimate performance, but it did not feel scaled down. As for Andsnes’s trills, his passagework: they were truly to die for! The exultant moment of return was again subtle but no less powerful for that.
The strings in the Andante con moto seemed very much to have taken to heart the oft-repeated comparison to the Furies. But need they have been so brusque? Gluck’s Furies are not, or at least should not be. There was, however, an undoubtedly heightened contrast with the piano’s melting tone as Orpheus. Again, those trills! The finale seemed especially alert to its subdominant provenance and to the continuing tension between tonal centres. Others will again doubtless have been keener on the trumpets and hard sticks than I was. Rhythms were spruce. Above all, harmonic motion was understood and communicated, syncopations working their magic in tandem. And yes, once again, those trills! A couple of Bagatelles as encores (op.119 no.8 and op.33 no.7) had us longing for more.