Prom 9: Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Leif Ove Andsnes – Beethoven Piano Concertos (1: Nos.1 & 4) – with Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Apollon musagète [1947 revision]*
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano & director)
Matthew Truscott (violin & director)*

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 July, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Leif Ove Andsnes directs the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the piano in the first of three concerts across which they perform all five Beethoven Piano Concertos at the BBC Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouStarting not quite at the beginning and ending not quite at the end, Leif Ove Andsnes began the culmination of his four-year Beethoven Journey with his first of three Proms encompassing Beethoven’s piano-and-orchestra works, with the second-composed (but earliest published) First Piano Concerto and ending with the Fourth Concerto. In between Stravinsky was the palette-cleansing makeweight; a work of comparable length to each of the Concertos, and delivered (apart from cellists) standing up by the strings of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

I’m not sure whether the physical act of standing (surrounding a semicircle of five seated cellists) helped either the musicians or the audience. You might have expected more freedom of movement for the erect players – the Stravinsky is a ballet after all – but there didn’t seem to be much. This was a performance that matched Stravinsky’s cool, self-effacing and unemotional neo-Baroque writing; beautifully played but in no sense wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Having said that, such reticent Stravinsky proved a perfect foil for Andsnes’s Beethoven – antiphonal violins, minimal vibrato, natural trumpets and modern timpani with hard sticks – which could pack a nicely crisp punch while just as easily soothe the ear with the smoothest and quietest legato.

The balance was perfect, if just a little recessed, the woodwinds, trumpets, horns and timpani easily holding their own against the body of strings, while Andsnes’s piano (lid off, back to the Arena) was integrated in a most natural way. This was organic Beethoven, sounding spontaneous (but honed), with Beethoven’s own cadenzas. Unfussy and to the point in his conducting, with open hands that seemed to gather the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra even closer, Andsnes has always been a clear and direct performer at the keyboard: one of those musicians that likes the music to be the focal point.

A packed Royal Albert Hall was clearly aware of the beginning of a Proms event (to be completed on Friday and on Sunday), and was delighted that Andsnes announced two encores – both from Beethoven’s Bagatelles: Opus 119/8 and (faster and from earlier) Opus 33/7.

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