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.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa