On the strength of this performance alone, Leif Ove Andsnes is currently one of the master Beethovenians. In the First Piano Concerto, which wonderfully combines the composer’s growing maturity with the infectious wit of his tutor Haydn, Andsnes demonstrated enthralling confidence and understanding. He made the Royal Festival Hall Steinway sing with sumptuously rich tone, while maintaining high-definition clarity of melodies and inner lines; fast passagework was nimble and unnervingly precise, but always serving the music, never superficially flashy. The central Largo was tender and affecting without any trace of sentimentality, and the finale dazzlingly invigorating. Here he was well-matched by suitably energetic orchestral playing; previously, especially in the first movement, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s more lackadaisical approach seemed occasionally at odds with Andnes’s forward drive. For an encore there was more astonishing note-perfect dexterity and dramatic heft with the perpetuum mobile
finale of the Sonata in F, Opus 54.
Andsnes was also the pianist in the opening work, which takes Beethoven as its starting point – György Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia … The stage was eerily empty apart from piano, a zither and percussion. Salonen conducted from the organ console at the back of the stage, facing into the auditorium – from all corners of which the magical, mystical sounds gradually emerged. From arresting percussive moments, the piece concludes with the haunting sound of recorders fading into the ether; effective and cathartic.
It was a surprise to see the natural trumpets which Salonen had employed for the piano concerto return after the interval for Beethoven’s last great orchestral work – his ‘Choral’ Symphony. It was a good move: they provided well-integrated crispness to the Philharmonia’s otherwise slightly flabby texture. Salonen’s tempos were generally brisk, breathlessly so in the trio section of the scherzo, and there were some vivid moments of drama – but he glided too easily over too many important moments, with little sense of danger or urgency. The performance only came fully to life in the vocal sections, thanks to the powerful, lusty singing of the Philharmonia Chorus, superbly trained by Stefan Bevier. Full-blooded and full-toned, the choristers provided the dynamism that had hitherto been lacking. The solo quartet was underwhelming, and marred by a couple of ugly, unblended voices. Salonen finally managed to whip up some genuinely spine-tingling excitement on the home straight.