Sunday, 23 September 2012

Deeply probing and distinguished performances from Leif Ove Andsnes in Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1 and 3

This has been a good year for Beethoven with Daniel Barenboim performing all of the symphonies at the BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms and a feast of Beethoven at Symphony Hall and the Town Hall Birmingham with Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra doing a complete Beethoven Symphony cycle as well as the complete piano concertos from Leif Ove Andsnes and Angela Hewitt.

At Birmingham there will also be Piano Sonatas and Bagatelles, Triple Concerto, Overtures, the Mass in C and some of the Quartets with such artists as Stephen Kovacevich, Steven Osborne, Angela Hewitt and the Belcea Quartet. www.birminghambeethoven.co.uk

Beethoven has so many different emotional levels and moods to explore that every performance has potentially something new to offer. It isn’t many years ago that cynics were saying that we no longer needed new recordings of Beethoven and the other major classical composers. The new format of CD meant that music lovers could buy a recording and it would last for ever so what need of endless new recordings. This narrow minded view was extremely worrying.

Thankfully, despite a short period when there were fewer new recordings of the great masterpieces of classical music, recent years have seen a resurgence of new interpretations. Surely the issue is that we need to record the fresh ideas of new artists never mind how many of the older generation have put their ideas down.

Leif Ove Andnes has not rushed into recording Beethoven indeed a new release from Sony Classical www.sonymasterworks.com is his first. Andsnes has taken the time to allow his thoughts to develop before commencing on what he describes as a ‘journey’.

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Directing the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard, Leif Ove Andsnes plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major Op.15 and Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor. I deliberately took my time over reviewing this issue as I wanted to allow myself to get to know the performances. I should say at the outset that these are deeply probing and distinguished performances. 

The C Major Concerto opens with nicely crisp playing from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, as the piano enters, there is a terrific forward momentum. There is an altogether Mozartian feel to the performance, yet there is an underlying tension even in the most simple scales just as in the later concertos. You can imagine the young Beethoven full of drive straining at the classical form he is trying to break out of. There is a real feeling of partnership between the pianist and orchestra.

The second movement Largo has a thoughtful feel, almost as though Andsnes were improvising and having a conversation with the orchestra. At times there is something almost confessional about the way this movement is played.

The finale almost comes as a shock as we are thrust headlong into the Rondo allegro with Beethoven trying all manner of ways of presenting his theme. Again the playing is beautifully crisp and purposeful with a great rhythmic balance which is a sheer joy. The second subject really dances along with interplay between piano and orchestra.

I heard a degree of period style to the strings in the opening of the C Minor Concerto where there was immediately more expressiveness. As the piano enters there is more assertiveness that in the first concerto. As the music moves on, there is again that feeling of unstoppable forward thrust. At times Andsnes seems to be able to build a tension whilst seemingly just holding back and playing at a moderate pace.

The first movement cadenza is thrilling in its freedom and fluency again as if Andsnes is improvising and wondering what to surprise us with next. What wonderful tension there is as the movement ends.

When the piano enters in the middle movement Largo, it is almost languid in its feel with Andsnes carefully revealing every phrase and nuance. The rising scales are exceptionally moving and, in the throbbing motif near the end, one feels a strong sense of grief.

In the finale, another Rondo allegro, the orchestra beautifully weaves around the piano. Andsnes knows just how to use quiet passages to build up expectation whilst at other times the music just skips along with such fluency and freedom. Towards the end the piano seems to be playing games with the orchestra.

The more you listen to these performances the more the subtle details and depth of feeling you hear.

Over the next four seasons Leif Ove Andnes will devote the majority of his performing and recording activities to Beethoven. During the spring of 2013 and 2014 he will be touring with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. We will have to wait until Autumn 2013 for Concertos 2 and 4 and Autumn 2014 for Concerto No.5 and the Choral Fantasy.

In the mean time I will continue to enjoy these wonderful performances whilst waiting with anticipation for the next issue. The recording is excellent with good piano tone and, although there are no conventional notes on the music, there is an interview with Leif Ove Andnes in which he talks about the works.

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