Dimensions and Breadth
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 1 in C Major, Opus 15, & No. 5 in E-flat Major “Emperor”, Opus 73
Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (Leader, Pianist, Tambourinist)
L. O. Andsnes (© Ozgür Albayrak)
Whenever telling my inquisitive East Village neighbors the work I do at night, they invariable reply, “Oh, ya mean Beethoven music? I don’t understand that stuff.” And invariably, I agreeably smile and say, “Yeah, it’s kinda old-fashioned.”
My answer wouldn’t have sufficed last night, where Leif Ove Andsnes offered as new and radiant and glorious sound to Beethoven as I’ve ever heard. Nobody could not have been moved by these performances by one of the greatest artists in the world. These were Beethoven concertos that sung with a new lilting sound. And while Mr. Andsnes’s piano-playing is beyond rationality, there were reasons behind these revelations.
First, perhaps because this concert (apparently like the one last Monday) were part of Mr. Andsnes’ “Journey into Beethoven” an in-depth study by the pianist, giving all else to “concentrate on this composer.” What he learned couldn’t be put into words, but he obviously distills it into his sounds.
Second, because his relationship with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (a forgivable oxymoron) has been over a series of years. He has been traveling with them throughout his whole “Beethoven Journey” and one couldn’t ask for more delightful traveling partners.
As leader and pianist, Mr. Andsnes is an electric presence, and they can catch every physical movement when he’s standing. And while the audience was nor privileged to see his face when he was sitting with his back to us, probably his face was as expressive as his fingers.
Add to this that the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is not a pickup orchestra, but an ensemble which has been playing full time, perfectly cognizant of their multiple assets.
Third, this was one of those unique moments when we had an authentic Beethoven-sized orchestra–about 40 members–but without the squawks and tinny peeps from authentic instruments of the early 19th Century, Harnoncourt style. These were out up-to-date instruments in an up-to-date Carnegie Hall. The string section was precise, the winds absolutely beautiful, and the percussion in that segue between two movements in the Emperor Concerto were well heard.
The piano too was a good Steinway not available to Beethoven, but the top was down. The result was that the orchestra was not overwhelmed by the piano, but the sounds which came out were those of a good modern piano. Mr. Andsnes, with that so-ideal command, made certain to restrain himself when necessary, and this was all to the good in a jovial, almost zestful First Concerto.
One couldn’t blame Mr. Andsnes for taking a truncated cadenza in the opening movement, to keep the Classical balance. But so precise was his playing, so utterly violinistic in his octave runs, that one wanted the cadenza to continue, just to hear more of him.
The second movement had that same sense of elegance, perhaps disinterested elegance, but the feature here was the elegiac clarinet solo by Vicente Aberola. As usual, the final rondo was taken fractionally more speedy than expected, which–for those of us relishing the jests and songs of the composer–is disappointing. But so beautiful were Mr. Andsnes’s digital exercises, he could be forgiven.
The Fifth Concerto was of course another dish entirely. Gone was the zest and elegance of the C Major, and now we were in the country of drums and trumpets, both of which blazoned out after Mr. Andsnes’ introductory octaves.
Continuing this discourse would be useless. One had to have been there, since the pianist has more than élan, more than style, more than those amazing ten fingers. Listening to this Concerto played by the giants of another day, one heard the grandeur, the great thunderous dominance of Beethoven. Mr. Andsnes was not afraid to make his piano speak out. But the playing here was not so much emotional storm of a Prometheus unbound as a Rodin sculpture, a music which stood out against the sky all its innate nobility.
For his first encore, Mr Andsnes played the late E Flat Bagatelle. But he showed a different side of his genius in the second encore, a Beethoven German Dance. Eschewing the Steinway, he strolled over to the percussion, grabbed a tambourine and played it with all the zest and energy he gave to the Rondo of the First Concerto.
It was a nice turn indeed. But please, Mr. Andsnes, don’t give up your day job. Your music is too precious a gift ever to be cast away.