Leonard Ip writes
Top Ear has previously covered the announcement of Andsnes’ plan to record all the five Beethoven concertos. This here reviewed is Andsnes’ very first Beethoven album. It is also, most importantly, a first-rate Beethoven album.
The two concertos on this disc are live recordings made in March this year, in the Dvorak Hall in Prague. The sonics has just appropriate a level of spaciousness and concert hall resonance, and the audiences were extremely well-behaved. Such information aside, it will not be difficult for anyone to believe this might actually be a studio recording, given the technically impeccable playing from both the soloist and the orchestra, and the cool character of Andsnes’ playing that gives the performances an extra sense of assurance.
Which is not to say, of course, that these are the kind of safe, predictable and unbearably boring “modern” performance. In contrary, the recordings leave largely an impression of considerable vitality and verve. This must first be attributed to the adroit and forceful playing of the orchestra – the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) is, in fact, even more ear-dazzling in these performances than the pianist. Not only as the MCO fully exploits the advantages of a chamber orchestra – a clearer image of the winds and the timpani – it also astounds by its bold and penetrating brass playing (the trumpets in particular), the variegated character of its woodwinds, and the strings’ purity of tone. It is apparent that the strings are influenced by HIP practice as they do play with minimal vibrato, but from this they benefit more in terms of fire than their expressivity is detracted.
Part of the reason that the piano sounds rather undistinguished in the sonic picture is the recording balance, which, unusually, does not give the piano any more prominent a position than the orchestral sound that surrounds it physically (naturally, since the pianist is conducting as well), but that’s hardly a drawback in this case, where the two parties correspond with mutual understanding in so agile a manner. To achieve this Andsnes sometimes does things than seem to be more like cuing (as in conducting) than purely soloistic gestures – such as the small crescendo, which aptly brings in the tutti, in the repeated cadences of the opening sentence in the First Concerto’s Rondo. All in all though these decisions are made sensibly enough to actually enhance the musical flow.
Apart from all the ensemble excellence, which is clearly the work of Andsnes – for the MCO does play quite more spiritedly than they did for Abbado/Argerich (DG) several years back – the pianist also provides insightful playing that stands out particularly for its rhythmic acuteness. The slight rubato that kick-starts, again, the Rondo of the First Concerto is a pleasant surprise that doesn’t grow irritating through repeated listening, and nicely exemplifies how the well-thought-through playing of Andsnes can prove musically arresting with the smallest of details. The first movements of both concertos show Andsnes at his most clear-headed, for these sonata-movements, in which structural clarity is paramount, proceed with a true sense of direction. The slow movements don’t lack cantabile playing either – while the sublime Largo of the Third Concerto may not be the last word in terms of deep spirituality, the exquisite playing nonetheless yields great beauty.
I’ve mentioned that Andsnes is, in general, a rather cool interpreter. Indeed, one can’t expect to find in his playing, among Beethovenian virtues, the gravitas of Arrau, the fervency of Serkin and the rigour of Pollini. The most similar accounts of these works to Andsnes’ are, by and large, the Fleisher/Szell collaborations. Both Andsnes and Fleisher incline towards deftness and athleticism than lofty seriousness, only that Fleisher is often more inspired and sharply defined, and Andsnes more sober and steady. When all is said and done, Andsnes remains clearly a naturally Apollonian Beethoven player whose sheer intelligence compels and moves. “The Beethoven Journey” is certainly a project worthy of attention and, as for now, anticipation.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 1 & 3
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
DDD 66:48 mins