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Concert Review

A Stop at Beethoven in a Music Marathon

By Marc Haegeman
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Leif Ove Andsnes
Brussels, Centre for Fine Arts, 21 November 2012

Anyone who still considers classical music elitist or inaccessible, should have a go at the Music Marathon organized by the Bozar, aka Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. In the space of just one week, November 18 through 24, Bozar is hosting a non-stop succession of big names. Cecilia Bartoli, René Jacobs, Nelson Freire, Leif Ove Andsnes, Alice Sara Ott, and Antonio Pappano appear with prestigious orchestras in celebrated works such as Mozart's The Magic Flute and Beethoven's Piano Concertos. And to make it even more attractive the program includes introductions, meet-and-greet opportunities, a video screening, and public rehearsals, all adding up to a thoroughly complete musical experience.

On November 21, Day 4 of the Marathon, the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra performed Beethoven's Piano Concertos 1 and 3. Beethoven appeared relatively late in Andsnes' concert career. Back in the Spring of 2011, when he had just passed the age of 40, the inclusion of Beethoven sonatas in an Andsnes recital could still be considered exceptional and until recently he never came to record any Beethoven. By now, however, he is well on his way with a multi-season project, which he calls his "Beethoven Journey", aiming to perform and record Beethoven's five piano concertos with musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a four-year cycle. Nothing that exceptional, really, considering how many have done this before him. But when you hear Andsnes declare that "Beethoven's music is for me both the most human and deeply spiritual music there is", you know you are in for something special. The "Beethoven Journey" is scheduled to culminate in the 2014-15 season with the performance of the complete Beethoven cycle at major venues in North America, Europe and Asia. This concert coincides with the Sony Classical CD release of the Piano Concertos 1 and 3 (Sony Classical 88725-42058-2).

Hand in hand with the "Beethoven Journey" runs the "Feel the music" project which aims to open the world of music to hearing-impaired children across Europe. On the day of the concert in Brussels, too, Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra demonstrated to a class of children the workings of piano and various instruments.

As for the concert itself, Andsnes conducting the orchestra from the piano, created a stirring, fresh sound in Beethoven. The obvious care for details demonstrated the thorough preparation of the project. Textures were lean, tempi spirited and swift in the outer movements, yet the structure was held together as by an electric current, while the Largos breathed amply and boasted the necessary gravitas (the Largo of the Third Concerto especially was intensely beautiful). My only quibble was the now often seen orchestral setup of "modern orchestra meets period-performance practice" in music of the Classical era. The orchestra uses valveless trumpets and timpani with hard sticks, which not only creates some bizarre sounds (as when the trumpets are pitched against the modern horns), but also tended to brutalize the sound picture during tutti.

Andsnes' lucid articulation and deft phrasing however were a constant joy. He may have waited a long time to get to Beethoven, but now we realize what we have been missing so far. His rendition of the cadenza in the Third concerto was a case in point with his subtle dynamic shadings and superb grasp of structure. The woodwinds made a strong impression throughout, especially when heard in dialogue with Andsnes' piano. In general one could appreciate the strong sense of unity and conviviality, this comradeship as it were, which proves an irresistible asset in the concert-hall. The musicians were listening to each other (and clearly having a lot of fun) while the conductor/pianist virtually acts as just one of them. As said, it didn't prevent some rough moments in the ensemble, but overall these were highly convincing performances which make me look out for the next stops in Andsnes' "Journey".

Each of the concertos was preceded by a Stravinsky piece in which Andsnes wasn't taking part but mainly highlighted the Mahler Chamber Orchestra's skill. Before the First Concerto a strings formation performed the Concerto in D under the orchestra's concert leader Steven Copes, in a rather lushly romantic fashion. Preceding the Third eight members gathered for Stravinsky's Octet for wind instruments. Brilliantly played, good fun, but rather awkwardly sandwiched between the Beethoven.

Andsnes added a thoroughly exciting performance of the Allegretto from Beethoven's Piano Sonata #22, Op. 54 as an encore. A generous gesture, tremendously played, but in fact by then he had nothing more to prove. The audience was already up on its feet, cheering.

Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman