Not Quite the Hoped-for End to Leif Ove Andsnes’s Beethoven Journey

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 12. Stravinsky and Beethoven: Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano/director), Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7. 2015 (AS)

Stravinsky: Octet
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, Emperor


The gulf in style and content between Beethoven’s Second Concerto (actually the first concerto to be composed – it was completed in 1801) and his final Fifth Concerto, written just eight years later, is very considerable. The two works are not often played in a single concert programme, so it was particularly interesting to hear them juxtaposed, and to experience how they were separately approached by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

There can be few regular concertgoers and record buyers who are not aware by now of the monumental four-year-long Beethoven series undertaken by this orchestra and pianist/director, in which performances of the five concertos and the Choral Fantasy have been given in 55 cities and 22 countries. Their three appearances in this repertoire at this year’s Proms marked the final stage in their project, and this was the last concert of all.

The performance of the Second Concerto seemed admirable in all respects. Despite having played the work so many times it was notable that both the soloist and the orchestral musicians had preserved an appealing freshness in their playing. The first movement was taken at quite a brisk tempo: it was rhythmically buoyant, but accents were quite light, and there was an attractive elegance in Andsnes’s playing. The Adagio was gracefully delivered. It was contemplative but not ruminative in nature, and there was a strong underlying pulse throughout. A lively, witty and dance-like account of the finale brought a very pleasing performance of the work to a conclusion.

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, Andnes brought similar qualities to his direction of the mighty Emperor Concerto. The orchestra, which had seemed perfect for the Second Concerto, now produced insufficient volume and tone for the bigger work. Whatever the historical precedents may be, the fire and emotional rigour of the solo part surely needs to be counterbalanced by substantial orchestral “opposition”. The inadequate tonal strength in the orchestral sound only underlined the style of Andsnes’s direction and his playing, which was itself a little lightweight. Here the fast-ish tempo for the opening Allegro movement seemed a trifle hurried, and Andnes tended to press ahead all the time, so that the music’s natural weight and profoundly expressive qualities were to a certain extent brushed over. Energy and spirit were present in abundance, but it was a slightly superficial reading. In the Adagio Andnes again tended to push the music ever forward, and he gave his players insufficient room to breathe their phrases adequately. The movement was beautifully brought off in a way, but its musical depth of thought and expression were hardly realised.

The titanic finale was again beautifully and immaculately delivered, with lovely tone quality from the soloist and supreme technical control, but there was little rhythmic variety in the overall playing, and the result was that the movement most curiously sounded like a waltz. Such a dance-like quality seemed inappropriate here, unlike its suitability for the Second Concerto’s finale. It was a brilliant performance, but only at a superficial level. Had the soloist and orchestra played this work – so much more intellectually demanding than the Second Concerto – a little too often over four years? It rather sounded like it.

The concert had commenced with an attractively lyrical, witty account of Stravinsky’s three-movement Octet, brilliantly played without conductor by the MCO’s wind principals. How clever it is of the composer, after having led us through some at times fairly dry neo-classical counterpoint, to give the work a “soft”, almost sentimental ending: this was perfectly brought off for the amused benefit of a very full Prom audience.

No doubt it is difficult to police such a large group of 6,000 or so people, but it is regrettable that the ban on the use of mobiles was flouted by so many of those present. The glare of screens and the flash accompanying illicit taking of photographs was sometimes very distracting.

Alan Sanders