on 17 February 2014
I remember the excitement that followed Leif Ove Andsnes's first leg of 'The Beethoven Journey' which consisted of the the first and third concertos. Was it possible that those well known masterpieces could be made to sound newly minted? Well, yes!
There is no doubt that the soloist is a poet amongst musicians and brings subtlety, strength and phenomenal imagination to these well trodden scores. However, IMHO, the interplay between the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the soloist is what really makes this a stand-out issue. There is no sense of the players tagging along like a reluctant dog on a rainy night wishing they were at home in front of the fire. Every player in this recording sounds involved and part of what is being created before our ears. The sheer quality of the sound produced by the Orchestra is itself a thing of incomparable beauty.
As I've written in other reviews, does a new recording make me hear details I've not noticed before? This cd certainly does. It really is like hearing the piece anew.
Now for the 'Emperor'!
I have always admired the Perahia/ Haitink set of Beethoven concertos, one of the first CD sets I ever owned in 1986, but Andsnes's recent account of the Second and Fourth Concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is superior in sound to Perahia's (and even more superior to Pollini's sound, with Abbado, from 1992). As performances, they are superior to Goode's rather tinkly-sounding ones with Fischer. I haven't heard Harnoncourt and Aimard. Of course, further back there are fine accounts from Serkin (with Ormandy), Kovacevich, and Fleisher, but they sound their age and allowances have to be made.
I was astounded by the Third Concerto in Andsnes's previous release in this series, and if this disc didn't make quite as strong an impression that might be because I'm a bit more familiar with the Fourth than I was with the Third. Here again (as in the 1/3 pairing), we have an early concerto and one from the very different sound-world of Beethoven's "middle" period. The Second is charmingly done, and it sets up the bolder and odder Fourth beautifully. The first movement of the Fourth introduces a relation between piano and orchestra that is something of an agon, a contest, and that becomes clearer in subsequent movements, with the pianist asserting his own way against the orchestra as much as he is co-operating with it. Andsnes's playing is remarkably lucid and clear, with considerable dynamic variety and playful tweaking of phrase, all of that coming to a head in the quite long cadenza (Beethoven's own) that is played with remarkable richness of tone, phrase, and texture here. The lead-back into the orchestra is very nicely handled, and the coda is weighty and forceful. Those reviewers who feel this performance is too small-scaled are just wrong, I think -- sure, a chamber orchestra isn't the Concertgebouw, but there's plenty of force when needed (from the pianist too) and at other times a winning textual clarity and lovely piano tone, beside which the excellent Perahia, more closely recorded, can sound a bit glassy.
The second movement is one of Beethoven's oddest and shortest. I think of it as the one where the orchestra tries to assert itself weightily against the piano and fails, because the piano won't give up its relatively quiet insistence. It also functions as the lead in to the third movement, which is a total charmer, with a springing main theme that the piano ends up "stealing" from the orchestra. There's another fine cadenza here, which Andsnes dispatches magically, and the final dash for the finish is playful and exciting. All in all, you won't be disappointed with this disc. The balance is excellent, and the piano tone is getting up there with Kissin's in his great recordings of the Second and Fifth Concertos with Levine.