The Celebrity Series of Boston took us away from Boston’s snowy climes on a grand voyage of discovery. On Sunday, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra brought to Jordan Hall three Beethoven piano concerti, each a world of its own, as part of a project by these musicians to present and record all of this repertoire.
As ever with concerts presented under these auspices, the performers are justly acclaimed. The Norwegian pianist is well-known for his years on the international concert circuit and his highly regarded recordings—notably of Grieg, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. He has also premiered works written for him by Dalbavie and Sorensen, which recordings are also praised. Then there is his recording of Schubert’s Winterreise with Ian Bostridge (now much discussed in light of the latter’s book, Schubert’s Winter Journey). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1997 with the support of Claudio Abbado is an “independent international orchestra” that is managed cooperatively with decisions made democratically by all members. This exercise in a novel format of arts administration combines with high caliber artistry to bring exciting performances of music old and new to audiences worldwide. In addition to Abbado, they have worked closely with Daniel Harding, who is now their Conductor Laureate, and are frequently heard at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. They premiered George Benjamin’s opera, Written On Skin (the composer conducting) and will present that work in New York this coming August for its US staged premiere, though its US concert debut came last summer [reviewed here] at Tanglewood.
The marathon program for soloist and ensemble encompassing three concerti in a little over two hours returns us to (mind boggling) 19th-century programming, recalls Beethoven premiering Symphonies 5 and 6 on the same concert, then again Symphonies 7 and 8. More germane is the 1803 concert in Theater an der Wien when Beethoven premiered his third piano concerto, second symphony, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and reprised the first symphony. Alex Ross once wrote an encouragement to return to 19th-century standards of audience participation; if we are returning to such concerts perhaps that is not far behind. This program tests the mettle of the performers, even as it gives the audience an opportunity to consider Beethoven’s own compositional development and quirks. Each concerto is in three movements, and each ends with a rondo (a common form in others of his concerti). There are changes and innovations, too.
Conducting from the keyboard, Andsnes began the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat Major in a very classical vein. The Allegro con brio was played with equal measures of passion and restraint, as befits its theme. The cadenza here (by Beethoven, but written out later) was beautifully sensitive and also visceral in Andsnes’ hands. The Adagio opened with power and emotion; already we can hear Beethoven transcending the lessons of his teachers as he strives to capture the musical sublime. The concluding Rondo: Molto allegro is happy, fun music, and stood in contrast to the lushness of the middle movement. Here it was presented as playful, in keeping with the rhythmic play, at a perfectly apt tempo. It was a smile-producing conclusion to this opening of the concert.
The Concerto no. 3 in C minor opened subdued and mysterious—worlds away from the previously heard work. In this Allegro con brio the Sturm approaches in the introduction, but it is in the development that this music manifested itself as a long, slow burn of increasing intensity. With a thunderous introduction to the cadenza, the storm moves off into the distance and in its place we hear a demented march filled with tonal variations before the prolonged final trills return us to the tension of the opening. The Largo was a lullaby that gave way to nostalgia for a waltz which held the audience spellbound. This movement was an interlude of calm before the concluding Rondo: Allegro – Presto began attaca: a dance whose spring unwinds before starting up again, replete with scampering and skittering music from the keyboard at times declamatory, at others wistful. The quiet fugato after the trio-section arrived unexpectedly and breathtakingly. Andsnes was recalled thrice to the stage before the musicians were allowed their intermission.
We returned for the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. This innovative work dispenses with the orchestral ritornello; the piano starts alone on a pastoral theme, here played with gentleness and grace. A musical equivalent of bees buzzing, it brought us all to a summertime idyll. There is a fascinating rightness to it even as so much of the musical progression is unexpected. It is polysemous, yet never awkward nor unsettled, as each character lends due weight to the whole. Here it was played magisterially, so we could all appreciate these twists and turns. The middle movement, Andante con moto, enters with a tragic theme worthy of opera when the heroine passes to her death or the villain walks onstage; by contrast the piano here was downright mournful, and laden with sadness. The Rondo: Vivace concludes; it offers an immediate and total change of mood, opening as a lyrical dance, then going on to catch fire. Here I heard hints of symphonic writing Beethoven later elaborated in his ninth symphony. At the same time, there is all the romance of a pop song in this melody. A flying coda dove to a piano dynamic before racing to the finish.
Throughout this concert, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra played as a very coherent ensemble; each section moved and played as one, and the whole was highly responsive to the piano and to one another. The parts were well-balanced and the architecture clearly delineated. Andsnes was always clear in his direction, without extraneous gestures. He stood or sat (back to the audience, facing the orchestra) to direct, and at times giving cues with his eyes while playing at the keyboard. As for his playing, it displayed an enviable clarity of touch and phrase, with carefully planned dynamics and phrasings that highlighted and enhanced the music.
Andsnes offered Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A-flat major, Op. 33, No. 7 as encore. There is a power and majesty to these small pieces when they are played to perfection, as here. It was a delightful ending to a wonderful concert.