It seemed a tricky proposition to pull off evenly: Beethoven’s five piano concertos played by five different pianists. The last time that the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel surveyed these scores under a single soloist (Leif Ove Andsnes), the interpretative gap between orchestra and soloist was wider than the 405 Freeway. This time around, everyone involved drove smoothly on the same side of the road.

Javier Perianes © Igor Studio
Javier Perianes
© Igor Studio

The two soloists last Thursday night were not only a study in contrasting musical characters, but tested Dudamel’s growing skill as an accompanist.

His conception of Beethoven harkened back to the days before the chamber-like articulation and sparing vibrato of the period performance movement became the norm. It was big, bold Beethoven, the composer as arch-Romantic revolutionary. But Dudamel was flexible when needed, proving to be alert to the distinct sensibilities of each of his soloists.

Javier Perianes, who closed the series with his performance of the composer’s final piano concerto, would appear to be a poor fit for a partner. The Spanish pianist’s refined idiom tends to the introspective, after all, ruminating in the shadows rather than chasing the glare of daylight. Yet both soloist and orchestra worked together in seamless collaboration, with Perianes’ solo work acting as a kind of running interior monologue to the orchestra’s open declamation. The pianist, too, proved to have formidable muscles to flex of his own, as he demonstrated in the outer movements. Brawn was tempered with brains and heart, however. His fingers unspooled long lyric threads in the central slow movement from which the galloping Rondo finale – crisply articulated and surging ahead with carefully weighed rhythmic momentum – seemed to blossom forth with the inexorability of nature itself.

Something of a force of nature herself was Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, who opened the program with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4.

She has not exactly been mugging for the limelight in the years since her victory at the 2010 Chopin Competition. Counting a bare handful of recordings mostly on smaller labels to her credit, Avdeeva’s career has been an easy one to overlook. Our loss, as her playing Thursday night testified to. The opening bars of the Beethoven Fourth were enough to alert one’s ears that the audience was about to hear the sort of grand Beethoven playing one only reads about, or heard in archival recordings. Her hands shaped beautiful, flinty chords that erupted from the bass like dazzling stalagmites of sound, yielding only to the warmth of her taut singing line.

Avdeeva’s performance was a veritable masterclass in how to balance power and grace, as well as in avoiding the theatrical pitfalls that plague many of her better-known (and inferior) pianistic colleagues. No showboating, no histrionic gestures, no capricious meddling with the music. Just Beethoven – to say nothing of the staggering musicianship of Avdeeva. Her unaffected directness at times recalled the likes of Wilhelm Backhaus or Annie Fischer. I can think of no higher praise.

A Beethoven concerto cycle which proved a triumph for all involved. Just one message to the Philharmonic: please invite Avdeeva back. And soon.

*****