The main attraction for many in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s concert at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt was no doubt the two classical piano concertos played and directed by Piotr Anderszewski. However, the two 20th-century pieces which completed the programme proved to be no less appealing and made a major contribution to a rewarding evening.

Piotr Anderszewski © MG de Saint-Venant
Piotr Anderszewski
© MG de Saint-Venant

We began with Bartók’s Divertimento for strings alone, directed by the orchestra’s leader, Lorenza Borrani. Bartók wrote this work while on a tranquil summer holiday in Switzerland in 1939. It evokes both the peace of the Swiss countryside and the disturbing political events in Europe. It refers to the Baroque concerto grosso form in that it frequently contrasts solo players with the remainder of the orchestra. It also conjures up folksong and dancing as well as, in the central slow moment, a feeling of menace.

Within the first few moments of the Divertimento it was clear that we were listening to an orchestra on top form, and this was confirmed when the wind joined the strings for the second work on the programme.

The first concerto of the evening was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major, K503, played by Anderszewski, who also conducted from the keyboard. This is one of Mozart’s less frequently performed concertos, but to judge by this performance any neglect is undeserved. It is one of the composer’s longest concertos and the first movement has a substantial orchestral opening before the soloist joins in. The first movement has a number of curious resonances for listeners as some of the themes bring to mind The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and La Marseillaise – all of course unwritten at the time of composition. The second movement is a reflective Andante and the third begins with a deceptively light rondo theme but darkness quickly returns. The concerto as a whole has its own peculiar colour as the orchestra includes trumpets and timpani (in the outer movements) but no clarinets. In many ways it sounds as if it is looking forward to the brave new world of the 19th century. Anderszewski is a thoughtful, contemplative pianist who shaped each phrase and gave a highly expressive account of the solo part, and this carried over into his direction of the orchestra. The rapport between piano and orchestra was superb. It often appeared that one was an extension of the other with neither dominant or subservient.

The second half of the concert began with Janáček’s Mládí (Youth), a piece for wind sextet which nicely balanced Bartók’s work for strings which had opened the concert. In his 70th year the composer was looking back at his own youth for a biography but the music sounds as if it might have been written by a much younger man. Particularly noteworthy are the cheerful first movement and the lively third movement making use of the March of the Blue Boys which Janáček had written shortly before – the Blue Boys being the students at the monastery where Janáček had been a pupil. Janáček exploits the different sonorities of the six instruments and the quirky harmonies, rhythms and melodies that fill Mládí are typical of the composer. Six soloists from the orchestra gave a fine account of the work. It was particularly good to see and hear the bass clarinet in a prominent position rather than being hidden away in the depths of the orchestra.

Anderszewski rejoined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major Op.15. This concerto was in fact written after the concerto known as no. 2 and, remarkably, less than ten years after the Mozart concerto that we had heard earlier in the evening. Beethoven was extending the boundaries of the classical piano concerto but still very much within its traditions and such tensions make it an enduring and thrilling work. Anderszewski brought the same thoughtful approach to the Beethoven as he had to the Mozart, but gave a dazzling account of the showier moments such as the first movement cadenza. The lyrical second movement was beautifully played and the conclusion of the last movement was exhilarating. All in all it provided a perfect ending to a thoroughly satisfying concert.