The Beethoven Journey is the title of this album, and the "Journey" refers to Norwegian pianist/conductor Leif Ove Andsnes' project to record all of the Beethoven piano concertos and Choral Fantasy over the next few years for Sony. This is his first recording of music by Beethoven, and if I can make a judgment based solely on this CD, I would say Andsnes' way with Beethoven is generally quite convincing and just might compete well with some of the finest accounts of these concertos.
These performances are comparatively understated readings of the Beethoven First and Third concertos. Andsnes chooses shorter and more modest cadenzas in the First Concerto and in both works generally plays with slightly restrained dynamics in loud passages, opting for a more elegant approach to the music. And elegance is the quality most in evidence throughout the First Concerto. The opening movement brims with spirit and energy, while showing restraint and looking back toward Mozart rather than ahead to the more angst-tinged later Beethoven works. The second and third movements maintain this refinement, though the playful humor of the finale emerges with a measure of good-natured menace. The orchestra performs with utter commitment throughout the concerto and the sound reproduction, as in the Third Concerto, is quite vivid. There is virtually no intrusion from audience coughs or shuffling – you wouldn't know these are live recordings.
Speaking of the Third Concerto, Andsnes as both conductor and pianist draws more angst out of the music, especially in the sharp attacks and crisp playing by the orchestra. There is also a more epic sense to the performance as well. That said, Andsnes the pianist favors pointing up lyrical lines and, once again, taking on an elegance of style, not least because of his tendency to hold back a bit from powerful dynamics. The first movement has an urgent, dark sense, as well it should and Andsnes conveys a lovely serenity in the second movement. He is less restrained in the finale though, and the music is driven and rugged, brimming with energy and ultimately triumphant. I would say the Third Concerto is the better performance on this disc, good as the First is.
Of the competition, Perahia (Sony) is subtle, persuasive and ultimately hard to beat in any of the Beethoven concertos. Andsnes is actually self-effacing in his approach to these concertos, and in that sense reminds you of Brendel (Philips and other labels), whose way with Beethoven is not exactly dissimilar, but is more robust. If you can stand old mono sound, Schnabel (Naxos, Testament and other labels) is also very compelling. It's hard to rank performers in such heavy competition, but I would say Andsnes fares well in his somewhat understated approach, offering a deft, elegant take on these two Beethoven concertos that just may allow you to hear them in a somewhat different light.
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings