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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Concert Review: The Topless Piano

The Beethoven Journey with Leif Ove Andsnes.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (center) in rehearsal with members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
Photo by Holger Talinski © 2014 Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
There was a Beethoven marathon this week at Carnegie Hall. On Monday and Wednesday night, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes played and conducted all five concertos for solo piano and orchestra, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The pianist himself led the band from the keyboard, an arrangement that was used on the recordings drawn from this project and at all the earlier concerts on the band's current North American tour.

Beethoven himself reversed the numbers of his First (Op. 15) and Second (Op. 19) Piano Concertos, having started work on Concerto No. 2 ten years earlier. Mr. Andsnes and the orchestra responded to the  ebullient opening. The pianist played with the lid completely removed from his Steinway and his back to the audience, standing up to urge the orchestra players in the opening thematic statement and resuming his seat at the entry of the piano part. This arrangement elevated the importance of the concertmaster, who clearly led from the bow when both of Mr. Andsnes' hands were otherwise occupied.

Throughout both concerts, Mr. Andsnes had to split duties with himself, which lent some unusual qualities to the performance. He worked without baton or score, conducting at times with only one hand, rising half off the piano bench to signal an important cue and diving right back into the music with both hands. The superb quality of the MCO players (especially the flutes) was readily apparent in the first movement. In the Adagio, the piano had a quiet lyric quality before becoming firm and staccato to lead the dance in the final Rondo.

Piano Concerto No. 3 followed immediately. This work that stands at the crossroads before Beethoven entered into his mature style with the Eroica Symphony. The massive opening movement, with its chugging, guttural strings (an idea that seems to presage the writing of Gustav Mahler) featured Mr. Andsnes playing quicksilver runs up and down the keyboard against bold, shifting tonal colors. The long central Largo was hypnotic and hymn-like, with a solemn quality to the slow opening chords. The final movement, with its suggestions of Oriental color and repeated, obsessive main theme pointed the way forward to Beethoven's later experiments.

The second half opened with just the piano, and its brief monologue at the start of Concerto No. 4. Here, Mr. Andsnes forced to rely on his players as the keyboard challenges grew more difficult. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra players responded with a bold and bucolic reading, tighter than in the first half and closely following their first chairs. The central movement of this concerto, a terse dialogue between piano, basses and cellos led to the lively and celebratory final Rondo. Here, the piano's utterances answered by slide trumpets and small copper kettledrums, their hides beaten with hard wooden sticks. Mr. Andsnes chose to follow with a brief encore, two charming Beethoven bagatelles with audience and orchestra listening attentively.

Wednesday's concert opened with the Piano Concerto No. 1, with Mr. Andsnes injecting fresh energy into the familiar first movement. He saved his most sublime playing for the central Largo, a slow, undulating hymn that lifts the spirit and shows Beethoven's full power as a creator of emotion through music. The bubbling finale could have used a lighter touch from the orchestra and that last degree of energy and "lift", but it was played with nobility and puissance. Mr. Andsnes was particularly deft here, his hands dancing on the keyboard through Beethoven's slightly manic, forward-thrusting finale.

This was, however warm-up for Concerto No. 5. The Emperor (believe me, the nickname was not Beethoven's choice!) is the most ambitious, forward-looking and challenging of these works, pushing the envelope of form and development in a manner that parallels the Eroica Symphony. Here, the treacherous and very long opening movement, with its almost military main theme gave way to extended development and the famous "double" recapitulation. It was here that Mr. Andsnes found the right balance between conducting and playing.

The central movement had a hushed, almost liturgical quality at its opening, and led directly into the even more experimental Sonata Rondo that ends the work. This movement repeats its material seven times, adding "extra beats" in the later repeats that can throw the listener off and terrorize any unwary conductor.  Mr. Andsnes cued these off-the-beat notes perfectly, showing their evolution into a tapping two-note sound of terror in the timpani. The work ended with one last blaze of virtuosity followed by a few last notes, the sound of hushed resignation. It was followed by a pair of double encores: two more Beethoven bagatelles from Mr. Andsnes, and then the composer's arrangement of Austrian folk dances with the great pianist moving to the percussion section and switching to his second instrument: the tambourine!

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