“The Beethoven Journey” = BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 – Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and cond./ Mahler Ch. Orch. – Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 – Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and conductor/ Mahler Ch. Orch. / Prague Philharmonic Choir/ Lukas Vasilek – Sony Classical 058862, 56:21 (9/12/14) *****:
Norwegian pianist and conductor Leif Ove Andsnes (b. 1970) completes his project “The Beethoven Journey” (rec. 20-21 May 2014) of the concertos with this disc, more testimony of the natural brilliance and polished elegance of Andsnes’ musicianship. The marvelous “little curiosity” (Milhaud’s words) of the Choral Fantasy of 1808 receives a glowing rendition, its serving in every way as an adumbration of the Ninth Symphony. Andsnes here reminds more of Rudolf Serkin – minus the aggressive percussion – than of my other favored account by Andor Foldes. The floridly inventive opening, a taste of the composer’s individual approach to improvisation, flows like melted butter under Andsnes’ fingers. The flute solo, the horn fanfares, the swelling tuttis, and the chorus, intoning the words by Christoph Kuffner, move in harmony with Andnes’ lithe keyboard to create an exalted effect in C Major.
The crisp articulation of the opening passages of the Allegro of the Emperor Concerto includes not only Andsnes’ octave and arpeggio flourishes but the tremolos from the strings, the punctuations from the horns, and forceful contribution from the tympani. The fluent, fleet working out of the reintegration of piano and orchestra after the tutti by way of a moving trill and the subsequent interplay move with an artful sense of closure, each musical period complete in itself while building the larger structure. While Andsnes utilizes a slightly reduced symphonic ensemble, we never feel any diminishment of raw power, of the confrontation between the keyboard’s heroic voice and the often inflamed response of the mass. The individual lines from oboe, horn, bassoon, and low strings often seem to sympathize with the heroic impulse in the keyboard, a combination of pure bravura and delicate introspection. The combination of fluent virtuosity and luxurious poetry that progress to a sense of liberated jubilation I have not felt since the legendary Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli/Andre Previn collaboration from Chicago, 1960.
The B Major Adagio remains one of those mysterious of melodic and fanciful invention, a muted chorale with two variants, alternately for the keyboard and the orchestra. Andsnes continues the melody in the second variation, but he does not, by design, meet the requirements of the rhythm. Eventually, we come to the fateful semitone drop to B-flat, in the rhythm of the Adagio, suspenseful, awaiting the explosion of the German dance, at first outlined and then cast forth fortissimo. The invention embraces the galloping subject in the three distinct keys – C Major, A-flat Major and E Major – while Andsnes impresses us with any number of flashing roulades and hued syncopations in pearly play. The horns, bassoon, and bouncing strings certainly add to the color mix, ripe and playfully erotic. Seemingly played out by its own spiritual largesse, the music fades out; but Beethoven has simply proffered another pose: in a split second, the coda revives the theme fully armored, and the scion of Athena and Eros bids us farewell with a thrust of victorious energy. The sonic image, captured by Arne Akselberg at the Rudolfinum of Dvorak Hall, Prague, simply resounds with joy.