As I've said before, Leif Ove Andsnes is primarily a pianist of subtlety and grace. 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. Yes, this may turn away some potential listeners who prefer more energy and bounce in their recordings. Obviously, it's a matter of taste. With Andsnes you mostly get delicacy and discrimination above all else. Not that his interpretations can't be exciting, they're just exciting in a different way.
After surveying the first four of Beethoven's piano concertos in previous recordings, Andsnes now crowns The Beethoven Journey as he calls it with Beethoven's crowning jewel, the "Emperor" Concerto. As you no doubt know, Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It would go on to become one of his most-popular pieces of music. However, Beethoven did not give the work its "Emperor" nickname. The fact is, he probably wouldn't have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor in question, Napoleon. Most likely Beethoven's publisher gave the piece the "Emperor" appellation, or maybe it was that Beethoven first presented the music in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday. Who knows.
The piece begins with a big, bravura opening Allegro, the piano entering immediately. One of the first things you may notice from the outset is that Andsnes's performance does not exactly seem "big" compared to many other recordings. I attribute this to the fact that the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which plays wonderfully under Andsnes's guidance, by the way, is smaller than a full orchestra. Thus, the sound is a bit thinner than it might be with twice as many players. In any case, it doesn't affect the performance much except to make it a touch more transparent than most. The main thing is that Andsnes plays the piece with elegance and refinement; he doesn't just bang away at the keys.
Still, while Andsnes may be uncommonly nuanced, he communicates Beethoven's patriotic fervor and heroic aspirations as well as anyone, and there is even a little excitement in the performance. Indeed, many listeners will welcome Andsnes's thoughtful approach to the score.
This thoughtfulness extends especially to the Adagio, which under Andsnes's guidance is as lovely as any you'll hear. Yet Andsnes does not pursue any slow or dreamy tempos, so there is no hint of slackness about the performance. It's quite nice, actually, and it transitions effortlessly into the finale with an uncommon smoothness. Once into the finale, some listeners will perhaps want a more-thrilling close, but Andsnes follows up with a more-intellectual approach, neatly coinciding with the rest of his reading. Obviously, this is not a recording for everyone, nor would I want it as the only one on my shelf; but it makes another fine alternative choice.
|Leif Ove Andsnes|
Producer John Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the album at Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic in May 2014. As I mentioned previously, the slightly smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (about forty-five musicians) provides for a touch more transparency than you might hear from a full-sized orchestra. Yet there is also a warmth about the sound and a small degree of hall resonance that softens any hint of brightness or edge. The piano sounds well centered and well integrated into the proceedings, not too far out in front or too recessed. Moreover, the piano comes across warmly enough without sounding hard. It was clearly the intent of the Sony engineering team to capture a realistic concert-hall sound, and I have to admit that while it displays some small lack of sparkle, it has a very natural quality about it. Frequency extremes, dynamic range, and transient impact are all more than adequate as well.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: