Prom 22 – Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Le tombeau de Couperin
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K271 (Jeunehomme)
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

To describe this concert in a nutshell one could say that from first to last it was very, very good – and simply leave it at that.

What was so special? This was superlatively well rehearsed playing of commitment and sensitivity. All three works had been thought-through interpretatively with a coherent attempt made to get to grips with their differing characters and soundworlds. Credit must go to Alan Gilbert for making sustainable decisions about tempo and structure, and equally to the individual players of this exceptional orchestra for their response in terms of artistry and their ability to listen (and respond) to each other.

The highlight was the Scottish. An enlarged chamber rather than a full symphony orchestra can be a distinct benefit in this music. However, either option will work ’if well conducted’; for example, one has heard excellent live ’full orchestra’ versions with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philharmonia Orchestra and good ’chamber’ versions, notably Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. With full resources there are moments where one has to work that much harder at clarifying textures. Here, they emerged clean as a whistle with the further benefit that the Mahler’s lean sound – and in particular its soft playing – frequently added an extra dimension to the piece. The ’Scottish’ may not be the most profound of works … here it sounded like a great symphony, a cause for celebration.

Tempo and tempo-relationships are crucial in Mendelssohn. This was effectively demonstrated with Gilbert hitting exactly the right flowing tempo for the symphony’s gloomy, almost dour opening and then easing sotto voce into the ’Allegro un poco agitato’ at a relatively relaxed speed, the repeat taken (rightly) and subtly varied with even greater tenderness. Having got the basic tempo spot-on, Gilbert found no need to apply the brakes for the lyrical second theme. The other striking transition, into the storm-driven coda, was of similarly breathless hush hanging on the merest thread of sound. The Scherzo flew by with delicious insouciant lightness, the airy strings helping solve some frequently encountered balance problems, and even allowing some bassoon detail, reminiscent of the Midsummer Night Dream overture to register. The ’Adagio’ struck the right tone of voice – sombre and heartfelt – and the finale was cunningly paced, not so fast as to interfere with deft articulation and a fine ’Scotch Snap’. The clincher on this remarkable performance was the final “Gathering of the Clans” apotheosis. Preceded by some truly sensitive clarinet playing, this most questionable moment in the score for once avoided any hint of pomposity and, having found the flowing speed, Gilbert stuck with it and eschewed the usual unmarked sprint to the finishing line. A joy from start to finish – if Victoria and her beloved Albert were listening in from above, I am sure they would have heartily approved of this performance of their dearest friend’s music.

The first two courses of this memorable three-course meal were almost equally distinguished. In Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, the chamber textures had an exquisite bone-china sensibility, notable for refined oboe and flute playing.

Mozart’s E flat concerto is his first full-blown masterpiece in the genre, a surprisingly unconventional affair – the piano enters immediately; the C minor slow movement is conceived on the grandest scale; the finale is interrupted by an extended introspective courtly minuet. Andsnes’s performance was a delight – clean, crisp, perhaps overplaying the Rococo and underplaying the music’s darker currents. However, it is not every day one hears a Mozart concerto this well played stylistically. Andsnes is a great chamber music player, and there was the closest rapport with the enthusiastic orchestra, yet more attack in the first movement and depth of string sound in the slow movement would have been welcome.

There were two encores. Andsnes offered the finale of Haydn’s F major concerto, dashing and unbuttoned, to wind up the first half, and a superlative Marriage of Figaro overture completed the evening, full of verve, every note in place.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 7 August at 2.05 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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