Critic’s Choice

February 18, 2015 at 12:06 pm

By David Wright

Leif Ove Andsnes

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, coming Sunday afternoon to NEC’s Jordan Hall in a Celebrity series presentation, didn’t set out to be the official orchestra of the Unification of Europe, but that’s the way things are turning out.

The ensemble is, in effect, the alumni association of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, a program founded in 1986 by the legendary conductor Claudio Abbado that brought together young musicians from all over Western Europe and, after 1991, the former Eastern Bloc as well.

As players began to “age out” of the youth orchestra, some of them didn’t want the party to end, and in 1997 the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was born, playing the same broad repertoire (Baroque to the present) as its progenitor, and featuring the same melting-pot of nationalities (20 countries at last count).

Maestro Abbado continued to lead the MCO until his death last year, sharing the honors with other conductors and with distinguished soloist-leaders such as pianists Martha Argerich and Leif-Ove Andsnes.  Along the way, the group’s recordings have snagged a Grammy and a string of prestigious European awards.

On the MCO’s extensive winter tour, only three cities—Paris, Boston and New York—will get to hear the group in a program of Beethoven piano concertos, led by Andsnes from the keyboard.   The crackling, Mozartean Concerto No.3 in C minor and the eloquently introspective No.4 in G major are familiar friends, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the charm and fizz of the rarely-heard No. 2 in B-flat major.

Conducting from the piano bench can seem like a stunt, or it can result in an unusually intimate collaboration among artists.  Judging from their newly issued recordings of these concertos, Beethoven by MCO/Andsnes appears to be the latter.

The program will be performed 3 p.m. Sunday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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