Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4 (CD review)
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.