“The Beethoven Journey” is a remarkable collaboration between pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. According to Andsnes, it is “a multi-season project that will make the composer’s music the centrepiece of my life as a performer and recording artist”, and it will feature these musicians touring throughout venues in North America, Europe and Asia as well as releasing all the Beethoven piano concertos on CD.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra © Sonja Werner
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Sonja Werner

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1997, has established a reputation as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world. Their relatively small size was obvious here in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, more often a host of much larger ensembles. The musicians were also clustered tightly around the piano, which was placed in the centre of the group and positioned so that the pianist’s back would be to the audience.

As we waited for the overture to begin, there was a sense of expectation that Andsnes might come on stage to conduct it. However, the orchestra suddenly began playing under the subtle yet authoritative direction of concertmaster Steven Copes. Clearly used to performing without a conductor, the ensemble was absolutely secure throughout the evening. The orchestra sported a lean yet cultured sound. Throughout, vibrato in the strings was used sparingly with woodwind lines lovingly played. In the dramatic overture, inspired by Heinrich von Collin’s tragedy Coriolan, punctuating chords were played with gunshot accents and precision. The scene was set for the Third Piano Concerto, composed in the same key of C minor, which featured at the end of this programme.

Andsnes is renowned for his fine interpretations of works by the great Romantics like Rachmaninov, Schumann and Grieg as well as the Classicists, Haydn and Mozart. In Beethoven’s music, these worlds tend to collide, and Andsnes proved to be a very fine Beethoven interpreter indeed. Technically, his playing was flawless, which I would have expected from a pianist of his stature, but this was all the more remarkable given his dual role as performer and director. He began by standing to conduct the opening orchestral tuttis in both the first and the third concertos and, once seated to play, used subtle hand and head gestures to coordinate orchestral entries and the shaping of phrases.

It was clear that Andsnes had given a lot of thought not just to the solo parts but to the phrasing and the general timbre he would like from the orchestra. The phrasing had all the good manners that I would expect in our post-historically-informed practice times. Dynamic contrasts were often startlingly achieved and it was lovely to see so many smiles on the faces of the players, clearly enjoying each other’s music-making. Only occasionally did I get the sense of phrasing and rubato in certain transitions being cool and calculated where they may have sounded a little more organic with the presence of a conductor.

Stravinsky’s Octet, composed in 1923, was a masterstroke of programming. Programmes consisting entirely of works by one composer risk fatiguing the ears of the audience. Here we had something of a substantial palate-cleanser, and a showcase for some of the virtuoso wind players of the MCO. The Octet features flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trombones and two trumpets. The performance was a delight, with some of the musicians dancing along to Stravinsky’s march, waltz and pop-music parodies that were juxtaposed with his more familiar neo-classical polyphonic writing.

Despite the high quality of all that had come before it, the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 proved to be the highlight of the evening. Andsnes dared to shape the contrasting minor and major episodes with more rubato than he had in the sunnier, earlier concerto. This piece, while still Classical in structure, shows Beethoven transforming the genre into something far more expressive and dramatic. Slow movements in both concertos were forward-moving yet lyrical and expressive. The final movements were both played swiftly and attacca, rousing us immediately from the reverie of before.

At the thrilling coda of this concerto, we were transported back to the sunny C major of the first. The audience, held rapt throughout, were thunderous in their applause and appreciation for such a special event, for it is rare to see these concertos performed and directed in this manner. It was a privilege to witness a part of this “journey”, and it was clear that Andsnes and this wonderful orchestra are getting along splendidly.