Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto must come with the territory if you’re a Norwegian pianist, yet Leif Ove Andsnes hasn’t played it for a dozen years. All that changed yesterday evening in Tivoli Gardens, kicking off a run of 21 performances around the globe this autumn, mostly touring with the Oslo Philharmonic, to mark the work’s 150th anniversary. What marked out this performance as especially noteworthy was that Andsnes was playing an 1867 Blüthner with period instrument band Concerto Copenhagen, in the very city in which Grieg’s concerto premiered.

Leif Ove Andsnes and Concerto Copenhagen in rehearsal at Tivoli
© Helge Hansen

Andsnes has form playing period instrument Grieg, having recorded a selection of the Lyric Pieces on the piano at the composer’s Bergen home, Troldhaugen, in 2001. But how would such a mighty concerto fare in period colours? Despite a hollow bass A after the grand opening flourish, the Blüthner stood up pretty well, with hardly any brittleness and a sweet kernel in its middle register. Immaculately tailored and sitting straight-backed, Andsnes gave a remarkably fresh – and refreshing – account, devoid of the bombastic pounding that some pianists can inflict upon this evergreen concerto. He brought an improvisatory feel to the first movement cadenza, while the Adagio unfurled its tendrils with dewy delicacy. The folksy finale turned into a game of cat-and-mouse, Andsnes sometimes pushing a fraction ahead of the orchestra.

Considering the supple, honeyed tone of the Blüthner and Andsnes’ sensitive playing, Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s approach was often unnecessarily aggressive, driving Concerto Copenhagen like a steamroller through some passages, the response to the finale’s playful solo opening theme particularly bruising. There’s bracing and there’s abrasive. Yet, Andsnes brushed off the assault and maintained playful spirits to the end, before offering pastel-coloured Schumann as an encore, an appropriate choice given how hearing Clara Schumann perform Robert’s concerto in Leipzig influenced – A minor key, opening flourish, lyrical style – Grieg’s own composition.

Grieg composed his concerto in Søllerød, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, but he missed the premiere on account of needing to keep an orchestral engagement in Christiania (Oslo). Danish composer Niels Gade was at the first performance though, so it was appropriate that his Symphony no. 1 in C minor filled the second half of the programme. Gade was only 25, and a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, when his symphony was completed, submitting it to the Copenhagen Musical Society for performance. When it was rejected, a friend of Gade’s sent it to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra where it sparked the interest of Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere to great acclaim.

There is something Mendelssohnian about the work’s youthful vigour and Mortensen certainly tapped into that in Concerto Copenhagen’s animated, often volatile, reading. His conducting style – batonless, arms flailing, often like a boxer trying to land a punch – is highly distracting and is not conducive to crisp ensemble, with several tutti entries smudged, both in the Gade symphony and the engaging Berwald overture that opened the concert. The orchestral playing was energetic, but flawed. There’s a fine line between “tangy” period instrument tone and simply being out of tune and Concerto Copenhagen crossed it regularly, oboes, violas and cellos being the principal offenders. On the plus side, several flute and clarinet solos were nicely shaped, the principal horn impressed and the timpanist was outstanding, injecting drama aplenty.

Mark's press trip was funded by Concerto Copenhagen