Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Paris, Bodø, London… The itinerary of Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven Journey reads like a list of cultural capitals of the world. With one exception: the little North Norwegian town of Bodø which, with its 50,000 inhabitants, is by far the smallest stop on the tour. The reason for the visit is the new concert house, Stormen (The Storm), opened last November and named after the wind that ceaselessly blows through the city.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Özgür Albayrak
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Özgür Albayrak

The concert started not with Beethoven, but with Stravinsky. The latter’s 1923 Octet for wind instruments (flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trombones and two trumpets) is generally seen to be the start of his neoclassical period, with a tonal language clearly influenced by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Its playful angularity and dry, direct woodwind and brass sonorities contrasted nicely with Beethoven’s relative lyricism. It seemed odd, however, to be opening the concert with this piece, and it might have fit in better had it been placed between the two concerti, as a sort of musical palate cleanser.

Andsnes and the MCO’s Beethoven was on the lean side, playing with only a touch of vibrato. Still, they didn’t shy away from sounding like a big orchestra, adding weight to the sound when needed. This lightness of sound, combined with the impressive acoustics of the Stormen Concert House, lent an impressive clarity to the performance, the different sonorities and textures of the orchestra coming clearly through. The MCO played with Baroque trumpets and timpani alongside the modern instruments of the rest of the orchestra. This combination of modern and historical instruments can often be somewhat jarring, the different sonorities never quite blending well enough. Thankfully, the trumpets and timpani lent a certain punch to the sound, being able to play loudly, but never overpowering the orchestra.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major is, despite its title, the second piano concerto Beethoven wrote, yet it was the first to be published. It opens with a quiet string fanfare that only seconds later is repeated loudly by the full orchestra. The MCO and Andsnes made a lot out of this contrast, and the many that followed in this concerto, light and heavy, soft and loud, but the music was always cleanly articulated; every line was audible. Andsnes’ playing was brilliant, with every note clearly audible, stressing the virtuosic qualities of the music, something that was helped by tempi on the fast side. It was therefore something of a disappointment that he had opted for such a short cadenza.

The second movement was taken quite quickly, more of Andante than Largo, yet it did not feel rushed. This movement can often feel like it takes itself too seriously, sounding pompous and bloated if taken too slowly. Here it gently flowed, achieving near-weightlessness with the scalar passages and duet with the clarinet towards the end. The third movement was taken perhaps a touch too quickly, sacrificing some of the movement’s humour for virtuosic brilliance. Still, the middle boogie-woogie-like section seemed to bring a smile to both the orchestra and the audiences’ faces.

In the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, the fanfare and bombast of the First gives way to a lyric, more seamless quality. The musical lines are longer, the scope of the concerto more epic, in the original sense of the word. From the opening solo piano chords, a musical narrative was unfurling. The musical highlight of the Fourth – of the concert in general – was the tormented second movement. Andsnes played the piano melody with a prayer-like quality, before a furious climax. The orchestra had an aggressive, almost sinister quality, before they reluctantly retreated towards the end.

I was struck by the delicacy of the third movement Rondo, subtly navigating the twists and turns of the various sections, yet never shying away from lashing out into a great big forte. Impressively played though it was, I couldn’t help but question the decision to have this particular concerto as the final number. However much I love Beethoven’s Fourth, it didn’t feel spectacular enough to end this first of three concerts. Still, with this quality of music making, it mattered not.

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are playing at the BBC Proms in London in a few days. It is definitely not a concert to be missed!