Andsnes’ Beethoven hat trick short on trickiness and depth

February 23, 2015 at 12:29 pm

By David Wright

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra performed at Jordan Hall on Sunday, an event presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. Photo: Robert Torres

There was only one piano bench onstage at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, but Leif Ove Andsnes still managed to fall between two stools.

The much-admired Norwegian pianist took on the roles of conductor and soloist simultaneously in a program of three Beethoven piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and ended up doing an indifferent job at both.

Seated with his back to the audience, facing the smallish orchestra over the strings of an enormous concert grand with the lid off, Andsnes played with marvelous fluency, got louder and softer where he was supposed to, and showed few signs of having thought about what to do beyond that.

The orchestra, a sort of all-star team of young musicians from 20 European countries, sounded highly skilled but rudderless.  It too seemed to lack a goal other than executing all the instructions in the score.  Frequent imbalances in the sound (horns too loud, violins overmatched, etc.), tentativeness in soft attacks and compensatory overeagerness in the loud and fast parts–faults a full-time conductor (such as the orchestra’s late founder, Claudio Abbado) could have taken care of in a jiffy–went uncorrected.

The concert, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, was well attended, and many concertgoers were visibly eager to hear the much-heralded orchestra and soloist on their world tour.  Only Paris, Boston, and Carnegie Hall were selected to hear the all-Beethoven program this month (it goes to East Asia next May), so a sense of occasion was in the air.

A reviewer must acknowledge that if a roomful of people are cheering a performance he found little good in, he may have overlooked something.  But never underestimate what a sense of occasion and some pearly scales can do.

The Beethoven concertos on the program were the middle three: No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in C minor, and No. 4 in G major—a rich series tracing Beethoven’s development from ambitious young composer-pianist to world-bestriding visionary.

Beethoven’s goal in these pieces was to startle and provoke, and he succeeded with contemporaries such as a Czech musician, quoted at length in Steven Ledbetter’s program notes, who was taken aback by nearly everything in, of all pieces, the relatively conservative Concerto No. 2.

Andsnes, however, played that concerto Sunday afternoon as if afraid of his own strength, or maybe that of the big piano, and most of the score’s invitations to startle made a feeble pop at best.  The most startling thing in the first movement was the dainty way the pianist played the extravagant solo cadenza, which Beethoven composed years after finishing this concerto and in a radically different style from it.  Perhaps Andsnes was just trying to make the cadenza match the rest of the piece.

The second movement was dimmed by weak tone in the piano and prosaic playing by the orchestra, although the soft, rapt closing dialogue in lieu of a cadenza was well attended-to by soloist and ensemble.  The finale at least had pep and swing, but no Czechs would have been shocked by this polite performance.

For the Concerto No. 3, trumpets and clarinets joined the ensemble, raising the question: Why were 18th-century valveless trumpets and wood flutes sharing the stage with modern valved horns and apparently (hard to tell from Row O) modern clarinets and bassoons?

In Boston, we like to keep things in their categories: period-instrument ensembles here, symphony orchestras over there.  Evidently in Europe mixing them isn’t considered remarkable, since there’s no mention of the practice on the orchestra’s website or in its publicity materials.  In any case, on Sunday the mellow ancient flutes took on the horns designed to play Richard Strauss, with predictable results.

The orchestra’s string sound also sounded rather rough-and-ready, occupying a sort of no-man’s-land between a lush symphonic tone and the silvery, focused sound of period instruments.  One might justify this by arguing that Beethoven himself occupied a similar in-between position in the history of orchestral music, but that scratchy sound would still take some getting used to.

The performance of No. 3 suffered from the same politeness, routine, and lack of focus mentioned above, although the orchestra clearly liked playing loud and fast, and stirred up considerable excitement in the codas to the fast movements.  The slow movement, however, sounded dim and directionless.

Andsnes’s mellifluous but nearly featureless rendition of his part, and smearing and generalizing the phrases in the more lyrical themes, left one wondering if the pianist lacked understanding of the rhetoric of music in this period.  If so, he wouldn’t be the first Romantic piano star to be stumped by the Classical style.

Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the poetic, forward-looking, heart-on-sleeve music of the Concerto No. 4 received the most effective performance of a dull afternoon.  Andsnes’s tone in soft passages continued to be vague and unfocused, which led to an interesting situation in the second movement.

This movement has been burdened since the mid-19th century with a narrative program, not originating with the composer but much elaborated in Sunday’s program by annotator Ledbetter, involving Orpheus in the underworld pleading with the Furies.  In this performance, however, instead of stern and implacable, the snappy dotted rhythms in the loud string octaves sounded positively jaunty, while the morose piano was lost in its own musings.

It was as if the strings were ready to party, but the piano was too depressed to come along.  Perhaps this represented an attempt to break free of the old Orpheus interpretation and do this movement a new way.  One could disagree with the choice, but at least it was a choice.

Another choice was to begin the finale at the same super-pianissimo dynamic as the end of the second movement—again debatable, but it was good to see someone was home.  Orchestra and pianist got into the piece’s infectious rhythm, which propelled one and all to an exciting rat-a-tat finish.

After that, the prolonged applause brought Andsnes back to the stage several times.  He obliged the audience with an encore, a hilarious performance of Beethoven’s manic Bagatelle in A-flat major, Op. 33, No. 7.  One only wished he hadn’t waited until he was just leaving to show listeners how saucy and surprising his playing could be.

The next classical music event presented by Celebrity Series will be pianist Daniil Trifonov  8 p.m. March 13 at NEC’s Jordan Hall.  celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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