Piano Concerto No.22 in E-flat, K482
Symphony No.7 in E [Ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Urtext Edition]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 8 February, 2024
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The LSO kicked off its celebration of Bruckner in his 200th-anniversary year with this first of a pair of concerts under Nathalie Stutzmann. Appropriately it featured what is still probably his most popular Symphony, and the one which finally propelled him to considerable acclaim in his lifetime, even if the cycle of Symphonies often remained misunderstood.
Stutzmann’s way with the Symphony was adept in threading a seamless course through its long-wrought melodies and gear-shifts between different sections. She didn’t simply cultivate beauty of tone for its own sake, however, but often instilled a searching, even tense, character. The very opening theme, for instance, was somewhat earthy and raw, not an ethereal vision of transcendence or perfection, as though anxiously seeking some resolution which it only temporarily found in the blazing coda of that first movement. The Adagio flowed, avoiding ponderousness with a distinct lilt in the contrasting major-key section on the verge of breaking out into a gentle dance. But the climax was as well paced and glorious as any, not hurried along, and coming as the welcome, natural release of the flexible interplay of themes that had gone before.
The challenge of the Seventh is in giving the second pair of movements a gravitas that corresponds to the first two, so as not to make the whole Symphony seem a lop-sided anti-climax. Stutzmann studiously avoided that with quite an explosive and fiery account of the Scherzo – not even a vigorous dance but looking ahead to the feverish equivalent in the Ninth. The Trio could therefore afford to swell and draw back in more conventionally Romantic passion as it did, to draw an effective contrast. But overall, where conductors often relax the tension in this third movement, it’s not often that I can recall remaining so engaged with it after the long spans of the first two.
Likewise, the dotted melody which sets off the Finale wasn’t skittish and inconsequential, but somewhat mysterious, with a touch of Mahlerian frenzy in the woodwind interjections. There was wonderful fluidity in the LSO’s articulation of the music, coursing through it lithely, unhampered by the metrical tyranny of barlines. And although they were rightly emphatic with the surging, monumental unison theme with which some conductors attempt to enforce a sense of portentousness, here it didn’t lead to a precipice but took its part in a more organic sort of drama across the whole movement, culminating in a satisfying, inevitable conclusion in the concluding passage. If there was not always the weighty grandeur of, say, Haitink, in this account, Stutzmann’s interpretation was highly sophisticated nonetheless in combining spontaneity with attention to interpretative detail.
Opening the programme was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22, with Leif Ove Andsnes. A bold, assertive approach to the orchestral exposition seemed to portend a generally traditional, symphonic vision of the work, underpinned by a sturdy bass line. But that was tempered by a fairly brisk tempo (more Allegro molto than merely Allegro) minimal vibrato and antiphonal violins letting in some excitable vitality. On entering, Andsnes soon pushed the music a degree further, setting it on a nervous edge, bringing the Concerto within the remit of the Empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style) of CPE Bach, or perhaps even the Sturm und Drang (and more explicitly so in a quite stormy, Beethovenian cadenza that comprehensively reviewed the first movement’s principal themes).
The muted strings began the minor-key Andante calmly enough, but Andsnes again soon brought in a touch of disturbance, his playing tending to flare up towards the end of phrases to urge the music on. After two somewhat pressed movements, the concluding Allegro didn’t register as so much of a contrast, taking up a similar tempo as the first, though fluttering woodwind and scurrying strings added jollity. In the slower minuet section (Mozart harking back to the same strategy in his Concerto No.9, in the same key) the piano was accompanied just by single strings, briefly narrowing the work’s focus to the scale of chamber music; or, amidst the hustle and bustle of its drama, as though honing in on a particular part of the action in an opera, as when the onstage band strike up in Don Giovanni.
There was no doubt that Andsnes drew out an idiomatic character in the Concerto and worked sympathetically with the LSO to do that. I have to admit a preference for more Classical poise and architecture in the music of this most subtle and refined of composers. But this performance will surely have pleased those who prefer their Mozart with something of an edginess, rather than comfortable charm. It was perhaps telling that, for an encore, Andsnes chose not Mozart or anything from his century, but late Brahms – the Intermezzo Opus 119/1 which, in its cellular, motivic concentration, almost looks ahead to the pianistic miniatures of the Second Viennese School. But his unrushed, sustained performance of it was far more settled than anything we had heard in the Mozart.