Don’t be put off by the ostentatious title. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s latest release – the first volume of a four-year Beethoven Journey – shines with some of the best Beethoven playing you will ever hear.
The apparent inspiration for Andsnes’ decision to record Beethoven (he made his name with Grieg and Mozart) was, improbably, a weeklong stay in a hotel that piped two of the concertos on loop into its lift. This would be enough to put most people off the music for life, but Andsnes says he found himself falling in love with it anew.
The clarity of detail in these intelligent and subtle accounts of the first and third concertos may even reflect the pianist’s claim that repeated exposure to wafting fragments made a big impression. But, clearly, this is music that Andsnes has been living with for many years – and it now emerges with an impressive maturity.
He is joined by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he also directs. Its alert, responsive vibrancy makes it a more sympathetic partner than the Philharmonia, which accompanied Andsnes in UK concerts at the time of this release.
The crisp, well-sprung playing in the introductions to both concertos could easily be mistaken for that of a period-instrument orchestra – an impression heightened by minimal vibrato, violins divided left and right, and the clean directness of natural trumpets and hard-sticked timpani.
But it is also capable of great beauty: witness the golden halo of strings and delectable solo clarinet in the Largo of the first concerto.
In Andsnes’ hands, the first movement aptly radiates a sunny optimism, a bold and confident stepping stone from the classical era of Haydn and Mozart with enticing hints at Beethoven’s blossoming romanticism. His dazzlingly nimble and bravura passagework ensures that the finale brims with youthful exuberance and Haydnesque wit.
The turbulent potency of the third concerto is enhanced by Andsnes’ refusal to wallow. His first movement is urgent and powerful, energised with detailed articulation, and he makes the piano sing fluently. The Largo is wonderfully hushed with no trace of flabbiness; the finale bristles with dramatic tension.
Hopefully we won’t have long to wait for the fruits of the next step on this joyous journey.
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