Akin to medieval knights of old, the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is on a quest called “The Beethoven Journey”. The journey is a long one, spread over three years; the quest is complex in that it involves the five piano concertos and the Choral Fantasy of Beethoven; and it is widespread – it takes place in over ten countries. As befits a preux chevalier, Andsnes is helping out with the noble cause of inviting hearing-impaired children in each country he visits to experience the orchestra with all of the senses. Accompanying him on this legendary journey is the enthralling Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

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

The programme for this concert at the National Concert Hall, Dublin featured two Beethoven piano concertos, each preceded by some chamber music by Stravinsky. The contrast worked well, showing intelligent and thought-provoking programming. The neo-classical Dumbarton Oaks concerto in E flat linked nicely to the classical elements which underscore Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, while the serialism of the Septet was a suitable pairing for the more daring and exploratory harmonic and structural elements in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks was commissioned by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in order to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Despite its name, it has no soloist and is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horns and strings. Dressed in black suits and black ties, instead of more traditional grab, the MCO stood, except for cellos, without conductor. From the opening of the “Tempo giusto” two things stood out clearly: firstly, this was an orchestra which enjoyed making music together and did so intelligently; secondly, they communicated with one another with the ease and intimacy of a quartet. The second-movement Allegretto is a quiet, contrapuntal affair. Particular praise goes to the flute and clarinet players who encapsulated the quirky, playful and pleading elements of the music in a thoroughly convincing manner.

Since Andsnes was soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2, the orchestra was grouped round the piano in the centre, its lid removed and its keyboard facing outwards. Not that the MCO needed much conducting, so thoroughly did they understand the music. The sound from the orchestra was both full and charged with an energy that instantly gripped. This concerto was Beethoven’s first to be completed (but second in order of publication) and is hence full of classical flourishes. The lively Mozartean sound was captured perfectly but with just enough edginess that Beethoven’s music demands. Andsnes made a sparkling entrance, communicating naturally with all the orchestra, with his eyes and, when the opportunity permitted, with his left hand. His staccato arpeggios skimmed gracefully over the piano, while there were marvellous moments as soloist and orchestra melted into unexpected keys such as G flat or C flat major. Everything was phrased with great sensitivity, and when the occasion called for it, as in the cadenza, bravura shone through.

I was struck by the calmness and the simplicity of Andsnes’ playing. This was a fresh-voiced interpretation of Beethoven, allowing us to become reacquainted with an exceptionally familiar work in an authentic, mature rendition. The most stunning moment of the second movement was the stillness and peace Andsnes achieved in the cadenza. It is quite a rare gift that a pianist can compel the audience to listen to the notes dying away and to the silence that ensues. The orchestra entered in with becoming sensitivity. The rondo is a cheeky, good-humoured movement and both soloist and orchestra were brimming with vibrancy and jocularity.

Stravinsky’s Septet in the second half proved to be a distinctive palate-cleanser. Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano, it illustrated what consummate musicians the MCO are in their own right. The acerbic quality of the passacaglia was brought out convincingly by the clarinet and cello. In the Giga, the fugal elements were crisply delineated by the winds and strings as the altering rhythmic values became ever more complex.

If expectations were high following the first Beethoven concerto, then they were amply fulfilled with a magisterial rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4. The surprising introductory chords by the piano were magical, while these same chords in the recapitulation had a full, fortissimo sound. The filigree was mercurial and sparkled brilliantly due to Andsnes’ sparse pedalling. This meant that when he did use the pedal in the legato sections, it was instantly arresting. There was nobility in the piano’s quiet, insistent melody versus the gruff orchestral response in the second movement. The Rondo third movement was a high-spirited and highly charged account by both orchestra and soloist, Andsnes notching up the excitement with an electrifying cadenza. Here the fortissimo sounded steelier to similar dynamic markings found in the second piano concerto. The rapt standing ovation of the audience showed that the audience realised how fortunate they were to be witnesses of this special “Beethoven Journey”.