Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4 (CD review)

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist and director; Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Sony 8888 3785482. 

Leif Ove Andsnes is foremost a pianist of subtlety, grace, and refinement. You have to understand that going in. He's not a big, bravura showman out to wow an audience with his audacious finger work, so you won't find a lot of showy glamour in his playing. Right away this may turn away some potential listeners who prefer more energy and bounce in their recordings. I would say it's all a matter of taste. Certainly, some performers are more fun than others simply because they give audiences what the performers think a given audience wants. You want it big and loud? They give you big and loud. You want deep, penetrating introspection or shades of melancholy or open sentimentalism or overt Romanticism? They provide it. But with Andsnes you pretty much get delicacy and discrimination above all else. Not that his interpretations can't be exciting, just in a different way.

So it is with this second album in a series titled Beethoven's Journey, which begins with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, written around 1788 but not published in final form until 1795, with another finale written in 1801. Whatever, it's relatively early Beethoven (1770-1827), and he hadn't yet quite found his own voice. Therefore, it's still a somewhat Classical rather than Romantic piece. Beethoven seemed mainly interested in the music as a showcase for his own virtuosic piano playing. It's a playful work in typical three-movement concerto form, although there is a rather lengthy introduction before the piano's introduction.

Andsnes's approach is one of graceful lines and cultured elegance. It's virtuosic, to be sure, yet sweet and lyrical, too, the pianist slowing down just enough for one to appreciate every note. Andsnes doesn't pack the electric charge of some of his rivals, yet his playing is so tasteful it always commands one's attention. Oddly, he takes the slow middle movement a tad faster than one usually hears it. There's no harm done, and it does seem a little less dreamy and sentimental than it can sometimes sound. Certainly, there is not a whiff of that here, which may or may not please everyone. The concluding Molto Allegro is appropriately amusing in a Mozartian mold and never succumbs to freneticism. Andsnes keeps the lightheartedness under control while still making things highly entertaining, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he also directs, plays wonderfully.

By the time the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 premiered in 1808 Beethoven had matured considerably as a composer and had established his own voice. It is more complex, more rhythmic, moodier, filled with more surprises. Here, Andsnes is always tasteful, from the suave simplicity of the work's introduction to its ultra-calm craftsmanship. Yet for all its Romanticism, the work never sounds entirely Romantic but adheres to its neoclassical roots with a admirable power and precision. In the slow movement Andsnes communicates a commendably weighty darkness, leading seamlessly into the more-boisterous finale, which Andsnes also takes with perhaps more seriousness than some other pianists. Nevertheless, Andsnes is careful to end the affair on a triumphant note, and all's well that ends well.

So, where does that leave us? Although Andsnes's more-relaxed style doesn't exactly make waves among the established Beethoven recordings from Kovacevich (Philips), Perahia (Sony), Ashkenazy (Decca), Brendel (Philips), Serkin (Telarc), Gilels (EMI), Kempff (DG), Schiff (Warner), and the like, he won't disappoint his fans. These may not be the most-electrifying performances on record, but they are satisfying in their own, more low-key manner.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at Saint-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London in November 2013. The sound is typical of what we've been getting from Sony in the past few years: very clean, very clear, moderately close-up, with a bit less depth, dimensionality, and room resonance than one might desire. It makes for a comfortable listening experience if not always an ultimately realistic one for audiences seeking a concert-hall sound.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa