For modern ears, Beethoven’s so-called Choral Fantasy is a curious beast, a hybrid of orchestral, concertante and choral genres and thus quite difficult to programme in a regular concert. Interestingly, Beethoven’s audience in the early 19th century didn’t have such qualms about its classification and were quite fond of this piece that joyfully celebrates the beauty of art. As it was premiered in Vienna in 1808 together with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, it is reasonable for pianist Leif Ove Andsnes to include it in his “Beethoven Journey”, a four-year survey of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is seeing a culmination at this year’s BBC Proms. In this second concert of the cycle, he paired the Choral Fantasy with the Third Concerto.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Chris Aadland
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Chris Aadland

Although the work is often referred to as a precursor to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, when placed in this context it was clear that the Choral Fantasy is stylistically closer to his piano concertos. In three continuous sections, the work opens with a three-minute solo piano fantasy, rather like opening a work with a cadenza. Andsnes brought an improvisatory feeling to this virtuosic solo section, but as always, with great finesse and crystalline pianism rather than any kind of superficial technical display. Having set the mood, Andsnes directed the rest of the work from the keyboard with conviction, unifying the large forces with a strong sense of purpose. The orchestral section takes the form of theme and variations, which featured delightful playing from the woodwind principals, often accompanied by the piano. After the orchestral climax, the chorus (BBC Singers) finally joins in and sings six verses of the joyful and catchy theme. Although simpler in form, the melody and harmonic progression does remind one of the “Ode to Joy” theme, concluding in a similar uplifting mood. Andsnes certainly made a strong case for the work.

As the BBC Singers only had five minutes to sing in the “Choral Fantasy”, they preceded it with an a capella performance of Schoenberg’s complex and fiercely chromatic Friede auf Erden, composed in 1907. Despite the title “Peace on Earth”, both the text and Schoenberg’s setting are quite dark and ironic, providing a stark contrast to Beethoven’s idealistic Fantasy. It was Schoenberg’s last tonal work and one can hear how he was really pushing chromaticism to the limits. It was valiantly performed by the BBC Singers, under the direction of their chief conductor David Hill, who drew out both the sonorous moments as well as the expressionistic dissonances from his singers.

The concert began with an elegant, fizzy account of Stravinsky’s neo-classical Dumbarton Oaks by 15 players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, directed by leader Matthew Truscott. They gathered in a semi-circle at the front of the stage, surrounding the cellos in the middle, probably because that was the best way to listen to each other. There was some brilliant playing from the individual players, but I think even for this quality ensemble, it was a difficult work to pull off in this vast space without a conductor, and at times the performance lacked forward momentum.

The highlight of this varied programme was Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the darkest and most turbulent of his five concertos and often given a grand and romantic interpretation. Refreshingly, however, Andsnes prefers a more classical approach, bringing out the inner drama of Beethoven’s music through a precise and sincere reading of the score. One could say there is a purity and clarity in his playing, without any additives or artificial colouring. And by directing from the keyboard himself, he is able to share this aesthetic with the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who respond to his playing at every turn with similar clarity and warmth. One characteristic he and the orchestra have in common is that they never force the flow of the music but find it from within, and this is why this partnership has been so successful.

The solo passages were crisply played with superb control and an evenness of tone in the runs and flourishes – and his trills were just spellbinding. In the second movement, he transported us to a far away, spiritual place, creating magical intimacy in his solos, especially at the desolate ending of the cadenza. In contrast, the Rondo finale was lively and buoyant, and the music flowed seamlessly between the rondo theme and the contrasting episodes. Andsnes switched effortlessly between his roles as conductor, soloist and chamber musician, and clearly he was enjoying being part of the orchestra. It was evident from this performance (and from the other two concerts of the cycle I attended) that in the course of this “Beethoven Journey”, Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have raised the conductorless performances of Beethoven concertos to a new level.

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