United Kingdom Prom 10. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Schoenberg. Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano/director), BBC Singers, David Hill (chorus-master/conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London. 24.7.2015 (LB)
Stravinsky – Concerto in E flat major ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ (1937-8)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800)
Schoenberg – Friede auf Erden, Op.13
Beethoven – Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra ‘Choral Fantasy’ Op.80 (1808, rev.1809)
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with its relatively youthful and international membership, has since its formation in 1997 by Claudio Abbado, accumulated some significant accomplishments; with the orchestra’s appearance in three concerts at the BBC Proms 2015 the peak of its impressive rise to date.
This evening’s performance, the second instalment of their ‘Beethoven Journey’, a four-year project with Leif Ove Andsnes to perform and record the complete works for piano and orchestra, was deftly programmed along with some Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, directed by the orchestra’s concertmaster Matthew Truscott, opened the programme. The Albert Hall is a vast arena and the relatively small handful of fifteen musicians for which Stravinsky’s little gem is scored struggled to make an impact, their apparent energy and commitment notwithstanding. There were a few unintended deviations from Stravinsky’s score and even though ensemble was never truly secure, it proved to be a lively enough curtain raiser.
The other twentieth century composition on the programme, Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, fared altogether better and was a real delight to hear. The BBC Singers, under the expert direction of David Hill, brought their exemplary vocal pedigree to bear on Schoenberg’s polyphonic setting of ‘Peace on Earth’, making light work of its chromatic complexity.
Beethoven’s music, however, was the main fare on offer, and this came in the shape of his Third Piano Concerto and a rare performance of the Choral Fantasy, Op.80. Leif Ove Andsnes directed both works from the keyboard, with the orchestra adopting a seating plan that incorporated the increasingly fashionable antiphonal violin arrangement, but with the double basses tucked away in a distant corner of the platform, rendering them almost ineffective in the cavernous Albert Hall acoustic.
Beethoven’s third concerto was given a conservative, though suave enough performance, which only truly came to life in the Rondo finale, with the orchestral sound much more integrated and with greater unity of phrasing, articulation and purpose.
The Choral Fantasy, with its principal theme reminiscent of the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was composed with the specific intention of brilliantly uniting the solo piano, orchestra and chorus, and this evening it fulfilled that purpose magnificently. It proved to be the star of the show, if the tumultuous reception with which it was received is anything to go by.
Leif Ove Andsnes playing was magnificently energetic, and he commanded the forces assembled before him with assurance and to outstanding effect, with the BBC Singers’ contribution exceptionally well judged.
If I do have one regret about what is often touted as complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano concertos, then it is that they invariably omit the sixth concerto Op.61a, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his violin concerto. Hopefully, its time is yet to come.
The final concert in this ‘Beethoven Journey’, Prom 12- is on Sunday 26th July 2015: http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ernrzc