Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Choral Fantasy. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and leader; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Prague Philharmonic Choir. Sony 88843058862.

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
The coupling on the disc is Beethoven's Choral Fantasy in C Minor, Op. 80, written in 1808, a year earlier than the "Emperor" Concerto despite its opus number. The composer wrote the piece specifically to conclude a concert that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and a part of the C Major Mass. He wanted a big finale for the concert, and he got one. Later, Beethoven would use a similar approach (and similar music) in the finale to his Ninth Symphony, though on an even nobler scale. Anyway, like his interpretation of the piano concerto, Andsnes's rendition of the Choral Fantasy is not one to bowl over a person with its thrills, yet it does offer a measured beauty. As always, Andsnes's playing is precise and controlled, with admirable flexibility and virtuosity, while never allowing his skills to overshadow the music, the music always foremost. Additionally, the small chorus employed sounds crisp in their articulation and offers a hint of bigger and even better things to come for Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony.

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:

1 comment:

  1. You do have quite a talent for reviewing performances, which nobody without decades of experience could match.


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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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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